I recently heard of a nursery where they were using tough love for a little boy who found detaching from mum every morning so hard. It was his first week in nursery after the holidays. He had needed a lot of attention and affection from staff and didn’t really settle. They were getting frustrated with this routine so, today they decided their strategy was to tell him “You’re okay!” “you’re fine!” and ignore him. To stop giving him attention so that he would stop being upset. Their rationale was it was time to man-up and he needed tough love.
He is three. No three year old should ever be taught tough love! He didn’t need tough love. He needed to understand what was happening and strategies to help him cope. He was not okay. He was not fine and no amount of wishing he was would change that.
As it happened, a new adult to the room approached the little boy to help him. They acknowledged the pain and feeling he was experiencing. They voiced the reason and acknowledged that he was finding this hard. They then used a toy dog to play a game. Using the dog to hide out of sight and show how something can go out of sight and return. They repeated this until he was calmer…
“…look the dog is going away, and coming back again…it’s just like mummy. She goes away and comes back again. Mummy has gone away, but she always comes back to get you at the end of Nursery.”
The little boy stopped being sad and started to open his eyes to the rest of the nursery and play opportunities without needing to be attached to an adult.
You know that game that little ones play at their highchair or in their pram where they throw things on the floor and you pick it up? And you get a bit bored of always picking it up and returning it! Well that was the game that was played with the dog and the little boy. That was the game his mummy was playing with him when she left him to go about her day. Only, he hadn’t realised that mummy would be coming back again. Throwing things on the floor and it returning is a crucial game for our little ones.In that game they are learning that you will look after them and return. That when something goes away, it comes back again. Perhaps his mum hadn’t played along with this game when he was younger and the toys had never returned again even though mummy always did. There may of course be other reasons but the game worked to settle him and bring the calm. A friend who fosters children reminded me that sadly of course this is not always the case, Mummy’s don’t always come back again. But thankfully, for the majority of children this is their experience.
So, when your young child throws something on the floor and enjoys it being returned, don’t get frustrated that you are always having to pick it up again…join in…let them know that you are reliable. That you will return. That you will come back again by returning that cup, that dummy, that brick, those keys, whatever it might be…because you will be teaching them that when you go away, you will return. Sorry, but you are going to have to play along! But at least now you’ll understand why they’re playing the game.
When you see a little one having a melt down due to detaching from a parent…please don’t ignore them or hope that they will get over it and man-up. Acknowledge their feelings. Name the feeling and why it is there. Show empathy. Retell the story to help the child make sense of what they are experiencing and if you can turn it into a game to help them make sense of whatever they are upset about. Play has power. Power to make sense of things and power to heal upset.
Please, always take the time to acknowledge the feelings you can see they’re expressing and try to tell the story of that feeling to help bring some calm. If you can turn it into play, even better!
It’s stories like these that make me realise that how we treat boys from an early age sets the path for them to keep their emotions close by not accepting them. It’s a pattern in our modern society that I worry about.
If you want more help and ideas for turning big emotions into play, do get in touch. I’d love to help.