By Shoshana Hayman, director of the Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting, LifeCenter.org.il
It was a typical birthday party: Balloons, ice cream, games, and party favors filled the day with happiness and excitement for Karen and the group of friends she invited to celebrate her eighth birthday. Her older sister went to the neighborhood gift shop to surprise Karen with a special helium balloon in her favorite colors.
While Karen wasn’t looking, her younger sister pierced the prized helium balloon with a pin. Her mother caught her daughter in this mischievous act but decided to handle the situation after the party. When all the guests went home, she went with balloon in hand to find Karen in her bedroom.
“I have something to tell you that’s going to make you very disappointed and sad. All the air came out of your helium balloon,” she said sadly, showing her the limp balloon.
Karen’s eyes opened wide. She immediately knew the culprit was her little sister. “I’m going to beat her up! I’ll kill her! I’ll smash her face in! I hate her!”
Mother continued: “You’re so furious at your sister that you can’t think of enough bad things to do to her! But you’re mostly frustrated that there’s nothing we can do about the balloon. It’s dead.”
Karen was confronted with this ultimate futility and started crying, as her mother held her in her arms and comforted her.
A parent has many options in such situations. She can scold or punish the younger sibling. She can force the younger sister to apologize. On the other hand, she can tell Karen not to make such a big issue over a balloon and instead focus on appreciating the wonderful party she had. Or she could can go to the store and buy a new balloon. But Karen’s mother did none of these things.
Whether she was aware of it or not, she helped her daughter get a little farther ahead on the path to maturity by priming the process of adaptation. The process of adaptation is one of three processes that bring a child to mature adulthood. It is the process that helps a child adapt to circumstances beyond her control and develop resourcefulness and resilience. To enable a child to learn to adapt to reality and to what he cannot change, she needs to feel the futility of a situation. In this story, the futility was the dead balloon. The expression of anger or revenge would not bring the balloon back. When the mother presented the reality of the dead balloon to her daughter, she brought the stark futility to her awareness and brought her to tears. But this was only half of her task. She then provided her with comfort and a sense of “you’re not alone; we’ll go through this together.”
Karen’s younger sister appeared in the doorway and said in a teasing sing-song voice, “I did it. You want me to say I’m sorry?”
Now, Mother had some work to do with her younger daughter: “You must have been feeling some very strong feelings that made you want to hurt your older sister by ruining her helium balloon.”
“Yeah, her and her dumb party.”
“Oh, so you didn’t like her having a party with all her friends.”
“No, I was jealous of her.”
“Oh, now I understand. You wanted Karen to have a happy birthday, but you also felt left out when she got all the attention.”
Now Karen’s little sister felt sad. “Yeah. I didn’t really mean to ruin her balloon. I’ll go tell her I’m sorry.” And she really meant it.
When feeling sorry comes from the child’s heart, it is the result of a process called integration, as explained by clinical and developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. The child can weigh two conflicting feelings together and come to a mature conclusion. On one hand, the younger sister was jealous and so broke her older sister’s prize balloon. On the other hand, she really cared about her sister and wanted her to have a happy birthday. She truly did feel sorry, after her mother helped bring out this mix of feelings by trusting her daughter’s good intentions and putting her inner conflict into words.
It is striking how much time and thought this parent invested into such a “small incident” — a popped balloon — and how patiently she dealt with it, especially considering all the effort in organizing and supervising her child’s birthday party. These small, seemingly trivial incidents add up together with the hurt and frustration that can potentially accumulate. But the most significant work of a parent is not making her child happy with parties, rather in dealing with the popped balloons of daily life.
The way we help children deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments helps them come to terms with conflict and see the options in life. In our hurried world, we need to catch these moments and take the time to “walk the maze” of our children’s feelings, knowing that this is what helps them grow into responsible, caring adults.