In March 2010 I received an email from Miranda. She wrote that her son Tim, nine, “seems to not like himself and has no focus. He says he hates himself and that he’s rubbish at everything”. A bright boy, Tim refused to do his homework and was prone to temper tantrums.
The solution I proposed was love bombing, a method I developed to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged three to puberty. It entails spending a period of time alone with your child, offering them unlimited love and control. It works for a wide variety of common problems, severe or mild; from defiant – even violent – aggression to shyness, sleeping problems or underperformance at school.
This is not the same as “quality time” – just hanging out with your child. When you love bomb, you create a special emotional zone wholly different from normal life, with new rules. More than 100 families have tried it, nearly all with positive results.
So, how exactly does it work? First, you explain to your child that, sometime soon, the two of you are going to spend time together, one to one, and have a lot of fun. Your child is going to decide what they want and when they want it, within reason. You give the message that this is going to be a Big Event: It’s Coming Soon … How Exciting! The child then draws up a list of things to do. It doesn’t matter if it includes lots of SpongeBob SquarePants: the key is that your child has chosen it.
Throughout the experience, you are trying, as much as possible, to give them the feeling of “whatever I want, I get” – of being in control and of being gratified, as well as bombed with love.
You may be thinking: Is he mad? My child is a tyrant – rewarding him like that is just going to make it even worse! This is understandable. Love bombing seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which often recommends more control, not less, when a child is not complying, and stricter, firmer reactions to undesirable behaviour.
But the love bomb zone is separate from ordinary life. Outside the zone, you continue to set boundaries, consistently and firmly. In fact, the love bombing experience will feed back in a benign way, greatly reducing the time you spend imposing limits, nagging and nattering – the “Don’t do that”, “I’ve told you before, put that down”, “Leave your sister alone” into which all parents get sucked sometimes. Almost any child – even happy ones – will benefit.
A key practical decision at the outset is the length of time to spend in the zone and the frequency. At one extreme, you can take your child away from home for a couple of nights at a hotel, bed & breakfast etc.
Alternatively, as many parents have done, the rest of your family can spend the weekend with relatives or friends, leaving you at home with your child. There is no need to spend money. Many parents have done a day away or just bursts of a few hours.
In the case of Miranda and her depressed son Tim, as a dual-income family, they could afford two nights away at an inexpensive hotel. They settled in on the Friday night and set off into town on the Saturday. Much of the time was spent just wandering around, with a certain amount of shopping and a visit to an aquarium.
Miranda recalled that this day “made Tim feel very special. It worked. And when it came to spending money, Tim was reasonable about absolutely everything, much to my surprise.”
Children who feel loved are likely to be less consumption-obsessed.
After a peaceful Saturday night at the hotel with a takeaway and the television, Miranda and Tim pottered around again on the Sunday and visited a zoo on the way home.
As well as Tim feeling in control during this time, there was much affection expressed. Miranda recalls: “Tim spent a great deal of time cuddling up to me and telling me how much he loved me (always reciprocated). It was interesting for me not to be in charge. I do tend to lead. Here, it really was mostly Tim’s decision what we did next, what we ate and what we watched on TV.”
In the guidelines I offer, I suggest getting the child to give the experience a name before doing it, like Special Time or Mummy Time or Daddy Time. Often it helps to have a material object to remind them of the experience, like a stone from a beach or a teddy bear. Using this and the name to help as prompts, on returning, parents are asked to try to carve out half an hour an evening when they can briefly re-enter the love bomb zone together, even if only to watch TV.
The impact of Tim’s love bombing was immediate and dramatic. Five weeks later, Miranda wrote to me: “Overall he is happier. He still has tantrums, but since the weekend away I haven’t heard him say that he hates himself once.”
Eighteen months later, she reported: “It is getting better, largely due to the love bombing and subsequent changes in our relationship.”
I have had similar reports of sustained success – followed up one to two years after the love bombing – from parents helping children with violent aggression, myriad anxiety problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), sleeplessness, perfectionism and even autism.
In many cases, I suspect that the experience stabilises levels of the fight-flight hormone cortisol. If too high, the child can be manic or aggressive or anxious. If too low – blunted – the child may be listless or surly.
Even a brief experience of love and control seems to correct that. Recent evidence suggests that children are far more plastic than was once thought and that the way they are is not fixed, for the vast majority of problems.
The love bombing zone need not be a whole weekend. For instance, Sam, three, seemed a lot more sensitive than his younger brother, easily overwhelmed by simple situations. Sometimes he would melt down in toddler-like rages. He got very jumpy when separated from his mother, Emma. She said: “In the house, he wants to know where I am all the time. “If Emma was upstairs and he was downstairs he would scream asking her whereabouts.
For practical reasons, she planned two consecutive Saturdays away from home with him, rather than a night. Sam named the first Pirate Day because they went to a funfair. He adored feeling in control and the expressions of love. As recommended by my protocol of what to do, she told him that she loved him repeatedly. Once into the habit, she continued. Since that day they both have found it easier to express love frequently . She believes they have “much, much better communication” and says: “It reminded us of the good times that we can have together, setting us back on that track. It was a truly lovely day.”
Often it is not just the child’s thermostat that is corrected, it is also the parent’s in relation to the child. After love bombing, many report that it has been the first time for months, or years, they have remembered how much they love their child.
Emma and Sam’s second day was based at home and included a complete meltdown by him. It is extremely common during love bombing for the child to test out if the parent is for real – really loves them or will still love them if they are horrible. Emma rode it out and they emerged much closer.
Afterwards, she reported: “He has not had any unreachable tantrums since that one on the last love bombing day, four weeks ago.” What is more, Sam’s fear of not knowing where his mother is in the house has gone.
However you do love bombing, there is nothing to lose. What’s not to like about spending time having fun with your child? If it transforms them and your relationship, so much the better – the worst that can happen is you return from the zone having had a good time.
• Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat is published by Karnac Books, £9.99. To order a copy for £7.99, including free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.www.lovebombing.info
Article originally published on the Guardian website – author has approved this use of the article for MissEcoGlam