When you think about bonding with your child, what images come to mind? For me its kisses and hugs, gazing into each other’s eyes, playing together, laughing together hysterically as I did recently with my son when he asked my help with a poem he was writing for school.
But there’s another type of bonding experience our children need that is as deeply affirming and crucial, perhaps even more so, than sharing affection and laughter. This one requires a dynamic that can be challenging for parents: setting a limit and fully accepting our child’s displeasure…
I found your blog when I was pregnant with my son, and I’ve been looking for a way to tell you just how much it has meant to me and to our relationship. I think I may have just found a way to express at least a small piece of it. The experience was very powerful to me; the idea that my son could see me as his ally even when I was setting a limit that he didn’t want to accept.
I had known this conflict was coming. On Christmas night, my husband had allowed L to sleep with his new trains. All seven of them. And at 2:30 in the morning, the inevitable had happened – L woke and was not able to find his favorite, and he started crying. I had gotten up and helped him settle down again but now, at bedtime the next day, I was determined that it wasn’t going to happen again. Nor did I want to spend the next six months finding and carrying seven trains up the stairs every night.
“L, you may choose three trains to take to bed with you. Which ones do you want to take?” I asked.
“Want take them all!” was his predictable response.
“I know you’d like to take all of them. Tonight you need to choose three. The rest will be here when you wake up in the morning. I’ll bet you’d like to take Thomas and Percy. Can you choose one more?”
“Want Bertie!” Whew, I thought. This might be easier than I was expecting. “Good!” I said, “Now would you like to walk upstairs, or shall I carry you?”
Suddenly, L realized what I was telling him, and started to get upset. “No! Want Troublesome Truck!”
“Okay, you can take Troublesome Truck, but then we need to leave one of these downstairs. Do you want to leave Bertie?” Oh, no. That was very upsetting.
We went round and round for a few minutes as L processed the idea of only taking three trains and became increasingly upset. I sympathized, repeating over and over, “It’s really hard to choose only three, isn’t it? You sound really upset.” After a few minutes I said, “You seem to be having a hard time choosing. I can choose for you. Let’s take Thomas, Percy, and Bertie.” As I started to pick L up to take him upstairs, he became almost hysterical.
And then something really remarkable happened. He pushed away from me, and when I said, “I know this is really hard,” he fell into my lap weeping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him cry so hard, and he simply clung to me while he wept as if his heart were breaking.
If I ever needed confirmation that RIE works, this was it. As I sat holding my distraught 2 year-old, it seemed truly remarkable that while he clearly understood that I was the source of this challenging and distressing new limit, I could also be the source of comfort he needed to work through his feelings.
Eventually the storm passed, and as he started to calm down I said, “Let’s take these guys upstairs and have a bath.” By the time we got upstairs L was calm, and he went to sleep happily with the three trains.
Predictably, he had to test the limit at naptime and bedtime the next day, but the distress of that first night never repeated itself. After a day or two, the “three train rule” became the new norm, and he’s never felt the need to test it again. I am so unspeakably thankful that RIE taught me the skills to deal with this situation the way that I did; the realization that I could be a safe harbor for my son – even when I was the cause of his distress! – had a feeling of “rightness” to it that I don’t think any other approach would have given me.