How love bombing kids can reset your relationship
Oliver James is not a man to shy away from dangerous ideas. A straight-talking, often outspoken British child psychologist, he achieved notoriety with the books They F**k You Up and How Not to F**k Them Up. He enthusiastically talks about how we will inevitability mess up our kids and how we can try to minimise the damage. (The answer, basically: chill the hell out.)
So, there was some surprise when he followed those two books up with a rather more low-key offering called Love Bombing. Instead of the broad-spectrum bromides and broadsides for which James had become famous, Love Bombing offered a hyper-focused look at a specific dynamic in the parent–child relationship. Namely, the point at which the relationship becomes defined by miscommunication and tension, and conflict becomes a seemingly permanent state of being.
The beginning of the love bombing concept
“I remember I was asked by the BBC to do a television series,” James recalls, “and I turned up on the first day to discover that they wanted me to visit these problem children, tell the parent what to do and then come back in two weeks to see if it worked.” After explaining to the producers that this wasn’t how psychology worked, James pitched a different idea. He’d go into these houses andlisten to the parent’s and child’s versions of the story. Then, he'd see if he could help them realise where these feelings were coming from.
Over the course of the series, James started to realise that a common theme linked many of what we see as problem behaviours. “Aggression, disobedience, ADHD, shyness, social anxiety: all of these are associated with fear, with the fight-or-flight system, with excessively high or low cortisol,” explains James.
When our child is scared, we know how to look after them. We hug them, tell them that we love them, that everything is going to be okay. Yet, James observed, in the case of these fear-driven behaviours, we respond in exactly the opposite way, with punishment, conflict and rejection. “Even in a resting position, these children were expecting to be attacked, or for things to go wrong, or that something bad was going to happen,” says James. “My premise was that you could change that.”
What James came up with was something he called “love bombing”.
The love bombing prescription
Essentially, the prescription was for the parent to carve out an extended period of one-on-one time with the child. Ideally twenty-four hours or longer—in which the child got to choose the activities, the food, the conversation. All the parent needed to do was be present, open and full of love.
“I thought that if the parent was able to give the child an experience of control and of feeling loved,” says James, “then it might shift their emotional thermostat. I started recommending this to parents. To my astonishment, they would come back two weeks later and—abracadabra.”
James emphasises that this is quite different from ‘quality time’, where you’re just hanging out with your child. For love bombing to work, it’s imperative that you create a space wholly separate from everyday life. It needs to be a space where the usual patterns and rules of engagement don’t apply. “Plan it well in advance. Build it up into a big event. Encourage your child to draw up a list of things they want to do.” When it comes to the day itself, allow the child, as much as possible, to dictate the terms: “What I want, I get”, as James puts it. In response, the parent just needs to gratify the child and, as the name suggests, bomb them with love.
Love bombing kids works
While researching the book, James worked with more than 100 families. He says all families achieved almost universally positive results. From the outside, it might seem counterintuitive to give a disobedient or wilful child more control. But, James believes this is at the heart of the phenomenon.
Children who are experiencing this acute fight-or-flight reflex are often doing so because of a feeling of instability and powerlessness. In awarding children this time to be in the world—with the person they love most—and to feel like the world is responding to their decisions positively, we’re helping them reclaim some of that control.
And, James tells me, children will often surprise you with their reasonableness when it comes to planning activities and spending money. “It’s an opportunity for them to think about your needs as well,” he says.
But love bombing is a corrective for parents, too.
“It’s very easy to get sucked into micro-parenting,” says James, “where we’re constantly nattering instructions at our kids.” For us, it’s all about trying to bring order to the chaos of our domestic lives. But adult conceptions of order are not things that children tend to value or understand. However, James says, “when the child is told they can do whatever they want, the parent is going to have to stop themselves from saying, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.’ They break out of the habit. As a result, they rediscover the playfulness and utter delightfulness of small children. And, of course, the child is becoming very delightful because they’re getting everything they want. It’s a very virtuous circle.”
Returning to real life after love bombing
According to James, it’s important to recognise that the time away is unique, and that a return to family life brings with it a return of the usual boundaries and expectations. (Although, the relationship reset will hopefully make those boundaries less contested.)
In order to help maintain the magic, James suggests creating both a name and memento for your time away. This offers a handle you can use to stage regular “top-ups”, even “half an hour where you can briefly re-enter the love bomb zone” and remind one another of how special your relationship can be. “Love bombing isn’t going to solve every problem you have,” says James, “but I believe it can be of tremendous value to all children—even healthy ones—as well as their parents.”
For James, love bombing is merely an extension of a theme that runs through all his work: the importance of play and letting kids be kids.
“The capitalist society we’re in expects children to be these orderly, productive units from almost the time they’re old enough to speak. But that’s bullshit and causes all sorts of problems and resentments,” he tells me. “The one thing that really is gold dust for all kids is play. We do fuck our children up. It’s impossible not to get it badly wrong in lots of ways a lot of the time. But if you can fantasy-play with your child and create a playfulness in the family culture, well, that can make up for an awful lot.”