The red balloon


“Nooooo!” My toddler’s anguished cry rose high into sky along with her shiny new balloon. “Balloon, don’t do that!!”

Copyright Tracy Cutchlow Moments before, she’d been skipping down the street, holding the balloon with such care. She’d continually turn to look up at it with awe. She was so incredibly happy. And she’d refused to let me tie the ribbon to her dress or wrist. Then the balloon snagged in a tree, and the ribbon was tugged from her little hand.

We watched the balloon bump, bump, bump higher into the tree, hope of a rescue slipping each time. And then the balloon was free.

My daughter’s face crumpled in tears of confusion and real grief as she tried to call the balloon. “Come back, balloon! Don’t go away. Come back!”

I held my daughter close, sad for her palpable loss.

In Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina talks about the various things parents might say in this situation, and how our reaction depends on our own comfort level with tough emotions. We might say:

“Come on now, it’s just a balloon.”

“It’s OK. We’ll get you another balloon!”

“Well, you didn’t let me tie the balloon to your dress, so this is what happens. Next time we’ll tie the balloon.”

Responses like this are intended to make our child feel better or teach a lesson. But they won’t. That’s because all of them ignore our child’s emotion, or signal that we disapprove of the emotion, or try to make the emotion go away. Medina points out that emotions can’t be wished away; they just are.

What our child needs from us in such moments is to simply acknowledge the emotion and offer our empathy. That is what allows emotions to pass. Later, when everyone is calm, we can problem-solve. Sometimes we don’t even need to teach a lesson — it’s already been taught.

Mindful of this, when the balloon floated away, I stopped in my tracks. I held my daughter and hugged her as she cried. We stood for a long time, watching the balloon get smaller and smaller. I said, “Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry. You’re feeling sad that the balloon is flying away. I’m feeling sad with you.” “Yes, you want the balloon to come back. The balloon can’t come back. The balloon can only go up. I’m sorry, sweetie.”

Soon, the balloon was gone. Not long after, my daughter’s anguish was, too.

Get details on how to do emotion coaching like this (including word-for-word sample scripts) in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. Or get both Brain Rules for Baby and Zero to Five eBooks. Brain Rules is the “why” and Zero to Five is the “how.”




Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.




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