Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Is your child a bottomless pit?

"We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth."  --  Virginia Satir

Sometimes I hear from parents that their child is a bottomless pit.  If your child is sucking up all you can give and still not thriving, you might be putting your energy in the wrong place. Kids who hunger for your connection to the point that they act out usually need that connection on a non-verbal level. 

Spending time with them baking cookies might make them happy because they get to lick the bowl, but it doesn't fill their primal hunger to be held, physically and emotionally.  Spending time reading to him might be intellectually stimulating, but it won't answer his deeper questions about whether he's loved and valued for who he is. Teaching her to throw a ball might be a good bonding experience, but if she's hitting her little sister because she's afraid you don't love her as much, it's an indirect (and less effective) route to healing her fear.

If your child feels like a bottomless pit, try this experiment: 

1. Every day, spend 15 minutes snuggling.  Revel in touching your child.  Don't structure this time.  Just kiss him on the nose, nuzzle her hair, let him sink into the comfort of your lap. Even if your kid is eight, treat him as if he's a baby, just beginning to be verbal. Play the physical games you played when she was tiny.  If you tickle, be very gentle and stop immediately if your child asks you to. Mostly, just snuggle and lavish attention.

2. If your child talks, listen closely and commiserate, so he feels understood. Resist the urge to lecture or teach. Drop any agenda except appreciating your child. Mostly, just be physical, not verbal.

3. Turn resistance into a game. Sometimes when parents begin this experiment, kids resist because they aren't sure they trust the idea of more closeness.  They ridicule the parent or wriggle away.  If this happens, turn it into a game.  Become a hapless bumbler, begging for a hug or kiss.  "I just need my fix of Eli" you might say.  "Just one little hug."  Crawl after him, grab an ankle to kiss, and if he wriggles away again, let him escape while continuing your clumsy pursuit.  "I'll never give up...I can't live without kissing you!"  Take your cues from him, but if he lets himself be caught, kiss him all over, saying "Oh, I just need these delicious Eli kisses....Finally!"  Notice I'm not recommending tickling, which can make kids feel over-powered.  Giggling, on the other hand, is a great way to let off pent-up emotions (and much more fun for the parent than tears), as long as the child feels in control of the game.

4. Welcome all emotion.  Parents frequently report that they have a lovely time with their child only to have the kid throw a violent tantrum later that day.  Kids often respond to increased closeness by letting out emotions they haven't felt safe showing you before.  So when you end the play session, if your child creates a crisis or suddenly becomes difficult, don't be surprised. Remind yourself that this is a good thing, a result of increased trust;  she's using this opportunity to heal old wounds. Set whatever loving limit you need to ("We can't play more now but we will have special time again tomorrow.") If your child responds with anger or upset, offer empathy and hold her while she cries.  ("That makes you really sad. That's ok.  Everybody feels sad and needs to cry sometimes.") If she's mad, that's ok too, just empathize and she'll almost certainly collapse into tears. After she has a chance to offload her pent-up feelings, she'll feel closer to you and more cooperative.

If you have a hard time getting into this experiment, pull out your child's baby pictures.  Go through them together, oohing and ahhing about how cute he was ("Almost as cute as you are now!" you say with a kiss.)  This will put both of you in touch with a simpler time when your adoration of your child was easily accessible -- and your physical connection touched both your souls.

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