We’ve all had them. Those moments where you could cheerfully throttle your kids. Why can’t they stop winging, screaming, crying, fighting…?
The problem was when it came to my nine-year-old son I was having them with increasing regularity. Ronnie has Asperger’s, or as the Professor who diagnosed him at Great Ormond Street said: ‘I’m now allowed to call it that now, it’s described as high-functioning autism’.
Autism has an enormous spectrum and what’s true for one child is not for another. It’s dangerous to talk in generalisations when it comes to children with autism, but there are certain overriding characteristics, which bind children on the spectrum. Obsessive or ritualistic behaviour, a lack of empathy and an inability to convey or understand their emotions.
Ronnie was diagnosed at the age of 8 and a child behavioural specialist gave me this wonderful piece of advice. ‘Ronnie is not weird, we are weird to him.’
And so we adapted. His diagnosis was a revelation. Suddenly I knew why Ronnie didn’t like to be hugged, it’s because children with autism often have sensory issues, so a hug can feel like a really tight, uncomfortable squeeze.
They are also incredibly literal. I could never say to Ronnie, ‘he has a skeleton in his cupboard’ or ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’
And so now I knew why he didn’t do small talk or say goodbye to me at the school gate – because he simply didn’t see the point. What he does enjoy is drawing incredibly intricate scale drawings of sailing ships. When Ronnie sets his heart on a new passion he will pursue it with fervour, like the time he became obsessed with digging for fossils and collected so many he set up a museum in his bedroom. These days, fossils have been replaced with football.
Football marks the beginning of a new Ronnie, one where hormones are flooding his body and hairs are growing on his legs. Puberty beckons, and with it, new challenges.
The words of the consultant grew stronger in my ear: ‘You will have fun and games as he approaches puberty.’
He was right, though still a way from adolescence, I began to sense the changes. Enormous temper tantrums. Door slamming. Explosive outbursts. Life was becoming increasingly turbulent and exhausting. I don’t think there is a door handle in my house which hasn’t, at some point, been wrenched off.
Then one day, two years after his diagnosis, I was interviewing a very elderly lady as research for a novel I was writing.
‘I’ve really enjoyed my kids,’ she said to me, her eyes shining nostalgically. ‘All my life I’ve made the most of their company.’
It stunned me like a blow. Had I been enjoying Ronnie, or had I just been locked in what felt like an endless conflict? I had to ask myself some searching questions. How much laughter was there in our house, versus shouting? What would Ronnie remember when he looked back at his childhood? The answers made for an uncomfortable realisation.
When someone whose opinion I trusted recommended a book called Love Bombing – reset your child’s emotional thermostat, by psychologist Oliver James, I bought it.
The basic premise of the book is that all children have an emotional thermostat: when challenging behaviour occurs – be it tantrums or groundless fears – it’s possible to adjust your child’s brain chemistry. By giving your child an intense, condensed experience of feeling completely loved and in control you can experience dramatic shifts in behaviour. James argues that a child’s brains are much more plastic and malleable than previously believed.
By ‘Love Bombing’ your child with an intense period of love and crucially giving them the controls as to how you spend that one-on-one time, in 48 hours you create a special emotional zone where you can reset and improve your relationship with your children There is only one rule for parents – you must allow your child to make all the decisions as to how you spend that time.
‘Are you mad?’ was my initial reaction. Surely that will just blur the parent-child boundaries and set up dangerous precedents. The book argues that’s not the case, and that by allowing him or her to have control for a 48-hour window whilst in the ‘Love Bombing zone’, their behaviour will eventually become more benign, in turn reducing the time you spend having to impose boundaries.
I was sceptical, but desperate. I didn’t describe it to Ronnie as Love Bombing, God knows how his literal interpretations would have handled that, instead I told him we were going to go away somewhere for the weekend to celebrate his 10th birthday.
Remembering the first rule, I handed the decision-making to him.
‘So, where do you want to go?’ I asked. ‘Paris to see Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb?’ he said, after a moment’s consideration.
Being careful not to dismiss it out-of-hand on cost factors, I did some Googling and was surprised to find Eurostar tickets for as low as £25 and a little Airbnb apartment that was affordable.
‘Are you sure about this?’ my husband Ben asked when I requested he look after our youngest son for the weekend.
‘Absolutely,’ I replied. But as the weekend drew nearer, my trepidation grew. What if Paris was a stimulation overload, to say nothing of exhausting for him? What if it triggered a meltdown?
My fears were groundless, what followed was 48 hours of the most rewarding, eye-opening weekend of my entire life.
We walked everywhere, and Ronnie had the controls. I ventured down cobbled backstreets I would never have ordinarily gone, ate in restaurants my adult, trend-conscious self would never have eaten in, visited museums I would have walked straight past.
Staring up at the towering polished sarcophagus sculpted from red quartzite that contains the body of Emperor Napoleon at the Musee de l’Armee, we were both awed into silence. Ronnie gazed up at the enormous gold dome roof above. ‘So he can rise up to heaven,’ he remarked.
I could see his imagination bursting into life.
‘Let’s go to the highest and lowest point of Paris,’ he ventured.
‘It’s your weekend,’ I replied.
The following day – after an evening meal of snails and pizza (Ronnie’s choice) we climbed 324 metres to the top of the Eiffel Tower and after lunch descended into the bowels of the city, 20 metres below the sewer systems, to explore the miles of old tunnels full to bursting with the bones of deceased Parisians from centuries past.
Paris has a macabre history that appealed to Ronnie’s love of dark drama. On the Ile-de-France, we ventured past the bustling bird markets to stand outside Marie-Antoinette’s prison cell, where the head of her friend was paraded past the window on a stick during the revolution.
We even managed to squeeze in a drawing tour of the backstreets of Montmartre with a young art teacher, who sat for hours patiently teaching Ronnie perspective and shading. ‘Oh dear, Mum, what is that?’ he laughed, glancing over at my efforts to sketch the Sacre-Couer. Less dome, more of a don’t.
‘I think my mum needs a coffee,’ he remarked witheringly to Romano, our teacher.
After 48 hours of walking, talking, eating, climbing, sketching and more eating, we were both well and truly shattered. But as we boarded Eurostar to travel h
ome, I realised I had not felt as happy or content in a long time. I was aiming on resetting Ronnie’s emotional thermostat; I hadn’t banked on doing it to mine.
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Ronnie, giving me the tightest hug he has ever given me. ‘Can we do this every year?’
My eyes were truly opened to Ronnie’s unique mind and moreover, I realised something: when I wasn’t just telling him off and he was free to just ‘be’ he was excellent company, making me laugh and making me stop to think with his endless questions.
‘Why do Parisians smoke so much? Why do people leave locks? (at the underpass where Diana was killed) Why did the Holocaust happen? (at a Jewish graveyard).
I won’t lie, six months on it’s not all been honey. There are rows, mega-watt tantrums still, but none of them contain the same potency to wound because I know what I can do to reconnect with Ronnie.
It doesn’t have to be Paris, as lovely as that was, realistically that’s not affordable every time – a weekend just doing simple things together like swimming or going to the cinema can work. As long as the time spent is one on one and the child gets to be in control. Love Bombing actually works. It’s a far more interesting and intelligent way of getting a parent-child relationship back on track.
I still look back on our Paris trip with real emotion. It was an epiphany. We didn’t just reconnect. Ronnie was reborn to me. I fell in love with my first-born son all over again.
Kate Thompson is a Sunday Times best-selling author. Her latest book, the Allotment Girls, is out March 22nd, and is available now on e-book, or to pre-order. Connect with Kate for previews, giveaways and information on all her upcoming book releases: TWITTER; FACEBOOK; WEBSITE.
Oliver James is the author of Love Bombing, reset your child’s emotional thermostat (Routledge. 2012)