The other night my tweenie son came home grumpy and sullen from an overnight with his father. My new boyfriend was over and I was sensitive to how my response would be seen, by both of them. I needed to prepare dinner (of course) so I thought, I have three options: be the jellyfish parent and make excuses for my son and coddle him; be caring but firm that respect and kindness are practiced at home; hide under the bed. I had to think quick and the bed was too far away, so I chose door two, the middle way. I greeted him kindly, and when there was no comprehensible reply, I told him to go to his room if he couldn’t be polite. He did. He came out cheerier, then I recruited him to cut vegetables for dinner. I purposely didn’t check to see how my boyfriend was seeing all of this. I kept my focus on my son, being kind but firm that participation and friendliness are expected in our family.
We had pleasant dinner conversation and bedtime routine, but I awoke in the night reminiscing that we hadn’t connected with our hearts the way we usually did and the way I especially love to when he’s come home from his dad’s. A light bulb went off: we hadn’t cuddled and tickled when he got home, probably because my boyfriend was there. I had been single for five years, after all, and was navigating incorporating my new man into our lives. We missed our reunion of tickling and wrestling, falling on the floor, our bodies entangled, engulfed in laughter and playful aggression. He is a boy after all. He’s taught me that – that the best way to connect and bond with him is to tickle and play, preferably hard (and ideally he wins). He naturally knows what famous psychologists have taught us about attachment, bonding and sensory integration: tickle!
The next morning I cuddled with him in his bed (leaving my boyfriend in my bed) and told him that I’d made a mistake last night. He was eager to hear what it was. I said, “I forgot to . . . tickle you!” and proceeded to find all the ticklish, wonderful, warm parts of his body that crave a parent’s playful touch. We laughed and played and broke into song. I employed Dan Siegel’s teaching about the magic of the rupture and repair process: when there’s been a rupture in the parent-child relationship, don’t despair: Reflect on what was missing in your connection, talk about it with your child, and find a way to repair it. The process leads to a stronger connection and teaches resiliency and belief that ruptures don’t have to be forever, but rather are an essential part of a healthy relationship and help us learn about the other’s style and needs.
Fun in the family can be as simple as a tickle fight. Next time he comes home surly, I’ll go into his room with him for a tickle fight!
PS I’ve just listened to a wonderful podcast with Dr Daniel Hughes, a family therapist specialising in attachment theory. He introduces a wonderful shortcut for healthy, secure parenting: P.A.C.E.- playful, accepting, curious, empathic. You might enjoy listening to it as well!