This story provides a fun and colourful opportunity to explore the unconditional love of a parent, as well as a child’s need to feel cherished and accepted for exactly who they are. At bedtime, the child asks, ‘Would you still love me if?’ and imagines themselves as a host of strange creatures, to test their parent’s commitment to them. The mother answers in caring and humorous ways that reinforce that there are no limits to her love.
Children who have experienced abusive pasts and often multiple moves between different homes, can come to internalise a belief that it has been their fault and that they are bad. They will find lots of creative ways to test out whether new parents are truly going to stick with them, or whether they will be rejected again. Even if the adult is kind and patient, the child’s fear can be that this parent just hasn’t realised how bad they are yet. They self-sabotage even the good times, as they feel they don’t deserve them. The expression, ‘I love you, stinky face’ seems to perfectly captures this fear and anxiety.
Offering unconditional love can be very difficult for adopters and foster carers who have become overwhelmed by the extent of their child’s trauma and all the ways it is expressed to them. This ambivalence towards, and sometimes sheer dislike of their child, is a source of shame and pain to them. Early in therapeutic parenting sessions, we explore the meaning they have made of their child’s difficulties and how they have been affected by this. It is not uncommon for parents to find that they have been traumatised themselves, by being on the receiving end of aggressive, rejecting or controlling behaviour from their child; or from witnessing their child’s internal struggles.
I work with parents to help them think about why their child’s behaviour might have become so organising of them and their family dynamic, and to help them find ways to become less triggered. Processing their own experiences of being parented and the impact of this upon them can be helpful. We talk about the importance of ‘knowing their own buttons’, so that when their child presses them again, they are better prepared for it. When the child’s distress no longer provokes their own painful memories, the parent is freed up to remain more emotionally present for their child.
Part of becoming a therapeutic parent is what we call ‘cultivating a level emotional playing field’ – that is not getting too pleased and excited when the child is behaving well and not getting too disappointed or cross when the child is behaving badly. In this way we can communicate two very important things – firstly that they do not control how we feel and secondly that we love them, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We move beyond a behavioural approach, towards a more relational approach to being with the child. Developing an attitude of ‘PACE’ – playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy, can be so helpful in reminding us to look underneath the behaviour to see what the child really wants to communicate.
‘I Love You, Stinky Face’, beautifully describes the mother meeting the child exactly where they are and wanting to understand them. Even as the child conjures up bigger and wilder creatures, the mother playfully demonstrates that she is not frightened by anything her child has to show her. Even if her child tries to push her away, she will love them no matter what. At the point in therapy where the family reads the book together, parents are able to truly hold this message in their hearts. Their hard work has brought them to a place where they have regained their confidence and hope. They know what their child needs from them now and they feel better able to wrap them in the warmth of knowing they are loved.