Koemba Blog

‘Somebody Hold Me’

Something quite amazing happened this week. Becky was on the floor playing with the grandkids while I was sitting on the couch enjoying a visit with their parents. Suddenly, a balloon popped. Twenty-five month old Maggie immediately stopped playing and slowly stood up silent for a few seconds. Then, raising her arms in the air, she softly said, “Somebody hold me.” Becky had been watching her and was aware that the balloon had startled her. She reached out and wrapped her loving arms around Maggie, held her up for a few moments as any loving grandmother would do, then she set her back down and Maggie went back to playing.

When I realized what I had just observed I was astounded. The balloon popping frightened this little 2-year-old girl. Yet she wasn’t overwhelmed with the flood of fear, which might have been demonstrated with screaming and uncontrollable crying. Instead, she was able to recognize her need in reaction to the balloon popping, regulate that need, and put it into words by way of a request, “Somebody hold me.”

Now, for a little background: Our daughter Kim and her husband Dirk, Maggie’s parents, have been using the Imago Dialogue process with mirroring, validating and empathizing with Maggie from the time she was born. Before they teach or discipline her, they mirror what she says by repeating back to her and telling her that she makes sense. Then they take whatever corrective measures they need by redirecting her thoughts or by helping her find words to express herself. So here is a two-year-old who rather than just crying when the balloon pops has learned to process the need she has and put it into words: “Somebody hold me.” Her parents, through this process, are teaching her that it is okay to ask for what she needs.

One very difficult task for many people is to express their needs to their partners. We tell ourselves stories like, “I don’t want to be a bother,” or “Nobody really cares about me,” or “I shouldn’t ask for help.” So what we do instead is simply complain, feel frustrated and sometimes “cry like a baby.” Perhaps it is because crying is how most of us learned to express our needs and we were simply not taught to express them with words.

What is interesting is that most of us have partners who really would like to do those things for us that would help us feel more loved, secure, important and cared for. The good news is that it is never too late to learn something new. It is okay to ask for what you need. You can help your partner learn to express those needs by mirroring, validating (“you do make sense”), and empathizing. This is a simple yet profound process. But more than a process, it is a very different way of being with your partner that helps in the transformation process from the old unconscious way of being to letting the genuine conscious you emerge.

With thanks to my friend and colleague,  Dr. Tony Victor,  for his article. Tony and his wife, Becky, have been on a relational journey over the last 38 years.  It has been the best of times and the worst of times.  Together they have faced life’s adversities as well as life’s blessings.

Dr. Victor is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.  He is a certified Imago Therapist, Advanced Imago Clinician, Certified Imago Consultant to therapists and a Certified Imago Couples Workshop Presenter.  He is also a Fellow with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.   His training and professional experience reflect a variety of psychological and theological foundations.  His early training and experience included a Doctorate of Ministry in Pastoral counseling and a postdoctoral three-year clinical internship in psychodynamic psychotherapy with an emphasis on object relations and family systems theory.  His later training included certification and advanced studies in Imago Relationships Theory.  Today Dr. Victor specializes in Relationship Therapy.




‘Good girl’, ‘bright child’, ‘difficult’, ‘ADD’, ‘ ‘slow’, ‘shy’, ‘lazy’.

The list goes on and on – but what is the impact of the labels we put on our children?

Think about going to the store. You pick up a tin of peas.

What do you expect to get inside?


What you see is what you get – right?

The label on the can refers to what’s on the inside.

The labels we put on children are putting a name on what we see on the outside.

When we label the child we’re naming a type of behaviour that we’re seeing on the outside.

We’re seeing the lazy behaviour, or shy behaviour, or whatever.

And we’re presuming that that’s what’s on the inside.

The label is ignoring all the other wonderful aspects of this child.

The label limits us to seeing just some aspect of our child’s behaviour, as though that is who the child IS.

When we’re labelling children ‘What you see is what you get’ is often the outcome.

We’re putting blinkers on ourselves regarding all this child’s wonderful potential.

And we may well be putting blinkers on the child as to all he is and all he’s capable of becoming – his wonderful potential.

Label a child and he’s likely to live up to your expectations.

Even pet names: ‘My little monster,’  ‘cheeky monkey’, ‘my baby’ can have an alarming way of becoming a self –fulfilling prophecy.

So what’s wrong with positive labels, you may be asking.

We’re still limiting who that child is.

The child who owns the label ‘clever’ may find it difficult to relax, have fun.

He’ll have to be living up to his reputation of always knowing the answer.

And that might mean always having his head in the books.

”Little miss sunshine’ may end up denying her sad feelings, her angry feelings. She may become a people pleaser – because the message she received was that it’s her job to be the sunshine in every situation.

What about ‘good girl’?

Doesn’t every parent want their child to be good?

Well, yes, of course we do.

But stop and think about it.

We use the label  ‘good’ when the child is doing what WE want them to do.

Does that mean that they’re ‘bad’ if they’re not complying with us?

When the child’s agenda is at odds with ours, she’s likely to resist or protest.

We might not like that behaviour but what’s it trying to tell us?

If our focus is to raise competent children who have a sense of who they are and where they’re going in life, it’s helpful to resist labels as far as possible.

I was recently at a Parent and Toddler group and watched a four year old carry the plastic cups back to the counter.

Resisting the automatic  ‘good girl’ comment, I said, ‘Thank you.’

She came back with two more cups. I said thank you again.

The third time I said, I figured I needed something else to say:

‘You’re picking up the cups and bringing them back for us.’

Round four:

‘And now you have two more cups!’

Round five:

‘You’ve picked up all the cups off the tables. That was helpful.’

I had to think harder to find a meaningful response that fitted the unique situation. I also named the impact that this had.

If she hadn’t picked up the cups, that wouldn’t have meant that she wasn’t a ‘good girl’. She might have been tired, or occupied with something else.

Sometimes labels are given because we are seeking to understand some challenge the child is facing.

Perhaps a clinical diagnosis has been given.

This can be very helpful for the parent to have some sense of what challenges  they’re facing.

I’m just asking that we bear in mind that this still only describes some aspect of who the child is.

There’s a big difference between saying,

‘My child is dyslexic.’


‘My child has dyslexia.’

The dyslexia (or whatever) is the challenge your child is facing.

It doesn’t define who he is.

Think about the difference between saying,

‘My child has a learning disability.’


‘My child has a learning challenge.’

A disability is something you have to live with.

A challenge is something that the courageous can overcome.

Language can limit.

Or we can choose to use language that affirms and believes in our child’s amazing, unlimited potential

Like the name on the tin, a label is just something that we attach.

It’s something we can also discard.

If we recognise labels that aren’t helpful– we can toss them today.

We can choose to see the incredible richness, the wonder of who our child is and can be.

Parenting From the Inside Out
From the Koemba Book Club:

Parenting From the Inside Out

This is one of my  most well-fingered and underlined  books on Parenting. Neuroscientist  and psychiatrist Daniel Siegel has teamed up with an early childhood and parenting educator, Mary Hartzell, to produce a highly informative and very readable book. The ‘heavy’ scientific information is marked in grey boxes – so you can keep to the practical reading only if you prefer.

There are also ‘Inside-Out Exercises’ for the Parent to reflect on the material in their  own context. I’d love to see this book as required reading for educators.  If you’re serious about Parenting – this book is a must.

A Young Mother’s Experience:

I was aware that something was wrong when Hannah was 24 hours old. On being discharged from the hospital we had been given a checklist of symptoms that required immediate contact with the hospital. In the past 6 hours Hannah’s nappies had become offensive to anyone with a nose in the surrounding neighbourhood! Following the hospital’s instructions we made contact. I explained our concern, the midwife remembered me:

“Oh yes, you were the mummy that was very reluctant to leave the hospital.”

I reminded her that we were discharged before my daughter was even 11 hours old.

“Well don’t worry mum, some babies are just smelly.”

So we commenced 5 months of life with a very smelly baby. Unfortunately, further symptoms developed over coming weeks. Hannah became very unsettled, appearing in constant pain, bringing her legs up to her stomach and screaming for hours, then entire days, and nights. We raised this with the health visitor and whilst I suggested the possibility of a dairy allergy, reflux was diagnosed. As I was breastfeeding, Hannah was prescribed an antacid several times a day. There was no improvement. A stronger drug was then prescribed at the maximum dose, with no improvement.

At 12 weeks we attended a vaccination clinic on a Tuesday. Following yet another sleepless night and 6 hours of constant screaming, we arrived late. Hannah continued to scream, unperturbed that we were in a public place. The other parents patiently waiting with their content babies insisted we go first, even though we arrived last, as Hannah was obviously distressed. I felt uncomfortable about jumping the queue and nonchalantly stated we were fine to wait, Hannah was always like this. Unbeknown to me, the Health Visitor was standing behind me. She asked me to come through to the clinic and then asked if Hannah really was always like this. Stunned, I looked at her and replied

“Of course she is, I told you this.”

“Tell me again” she said.

Hannah’s dose was doubled.

That Friday the Health Visitor called to the house. Hannah had been awake most of the night and had been screaming since around 8am. It was now midday. The Health Visitor offered to hold her, trying everything to calm Hannah down. Nothing worked. A small part of me felt elated. The Health Visitor left after an hour, advising she would arrange an urgent appointment with a paediatrician for further medication.

The following Tuesday I waited outside the paediatrician’s office at the hospital. Hannah was in fabulous form, content to sit and watch the activity of the hospital. The paediatrician called us in to his office. Without even a glance at Hannah he turned to me and said:

“I have just one question for you, how does she feed?”

Having prepared myself to share all of Hannah’s symptoms, I grappled to answer his question.

“Her feeding is starting to improve.”

Before I could finish my response the paediatrician whipped out a Dictaphone and started dictating his notes, which included a diagnosis of “so called silent reflux” and “mother has been advised to burp baby regularly throughout the bottle”. Stunned at his rudeness I interrupted to advise that Hannah was not bottle-fed. He resumed his dictation with the correction to breast feeding. He then rose to his feet, opened the door, signalling the consultation was complete. I stood, then asked if Hannah should continue her medication or if that would be altered, he advised me to discontinue it, as it wasn’t necessary. I asked if she could have a dairy allergy as my brother had one. “Of course not,” he replied. Concerned I then asked him what I was meant to do as Hannah screamed each day. He turned to me and patted my shoulder, saying:

“This may sound patronising, but sometimes mummy just can’t fix it. I’ll review Hannah in 3 weeks at my other office. In case you’re wondering why I didn’t see you there today, it’s because I’ve afforded you twice as much time here today than I can there.”

We left his office in under 4 minutes.

Hannah was prescribed  a different drug the following week through the Health Visitor. There was some improvement. Exhausted and overwhelmed, in mid December my husband and I agreed we would reluctantly start giving Hannah a bottle at night to allow me the chance to get a few hours sleep. Hannah became increasingly worse. I telephoned the GP’s office the minute they re-opened after Christmas. The GP listened to my concerns then said he was unwilling to prescribe anything more until she was examined. He squeezed us in that day, and asked me to share all of Hannah’s symptoms, no matter how insignificant they appeared. Relieved I told him everything: the nappies, diarrhoea, difficulties feeding, constant screaming, vomiting, eczema, and now the raspy breathing and wheezing. The GP asked what I thought was wrong, I said I thought it may be a dairy allergy as my brother had one. The GP agreed and said we needed to immediately remove all dairy from her diet and mine.

Within 48 hours Hannah had transformed. She was smiling, content, cuddly and for the first time taking in her surroundings and exploring her body. I knew from the first day there was something wrong. Within weeks I had identified what it was. However, I handed my trust over to the professionals, and in the process forgot to trust my instinct, and have the confidence to assert that when it comes to my daughter, I am the expert.

Used with permission

Note from Val:  We encourage you to always seek medical advice if you are concerned about your child’s health. But remember that you as parent intuitively know your child. Ensure that medical practitioners are listening to your experience and your concern.

Just a few days till Valentine’s and I’ve been tweeting that we tend to give to our loved ones what makes US feel loved.  But it’s possible that your child’s ‘love language’ is different to yours. So whilst you love you child, s/he isn’t necessarily EXPERIENCING  your love as you intend.  Here’s what I was tweeting today:

Had very scratchy relationship with my 17 yr old till I realized something hugely important. We have different love languages.

What makes me feel loved doesn’t necessarily make my child feel loved.

Learning his love language significantly improved our relationship.

My teen son appreciated me inviting him out for a cup of coffee – he chose when / where. Reconnection happened with time just for him.

How do you know if your child’s primary love language is Quality Time? Listen for: ‘Just you and me’ & ‘Remember when…’

How about planning 1 to 1 time with at least 1 of ur children this wkend? When ur child’s emotional cup is full – home’s more harmonious.

1-to-1 time with mum / daughter or dad /son tends to happen. But ur daughter needs time with dad & ur son needs time with mum.

So many positive memories can be made by ‘helping dad’ in the workplace.

Noticing what ur child loves can be key in knowing how to ensure he FEELS loved.

For some children quality 1-1 time is essential – it’s what makes them feel loved. What makes YOUR child feel loved?

For a child whose primary love language is quality time, ‘time out’ can feel soul-wounding.

I’ll be posting on a different aspect of  ‘what makes your child feel loved’  tomorrow. For more helpful tips and insights please check back here tomorrow or join me on Twitter.


It’s not what you say … 
Ever get frustrated because the family isn’t cooperating?
The dishes need doing.
Or you’re just trying to reason with your eleven-going-on-eighteen year old?
The next thing war’s broken out.
You’re both shouting at each other.
Or your child’s stormed out the room. Or you have.
What went wrong?

Or, in Parent Coaching language:
‘What could I have done that would have been more helpful? ‘

I learnt a hugely helpful way of looking at this from Stephen Stosny’s book, ‘How to Improve Your Marriage Without Even talking About It’ (love that title!)
He explains that we react to the other person’s motivation.
It’s not what we say that counts – it’s how we say it!
Stosny says there are three motivations:
Attack, Avoid, and Approach.

When we sense that the other person is coming from an approach motivation –you want to connect, you want to hear my side of the story too, you want to be there for me, you want to have a sense of how I’m experiencing tbis – then we experience a sense, ‘You’re on my side.’

I can let down my defences.
I can cooperate.

But very often we have a gut sense that things aren’t okay.
We’re sensing an Avoid or an Attack motivation.

It’s easy to figure that our child’s going to react if we’re yelling or shouting.
A strong tug on the arm can also trigger an ‘attack’ message.
Blatant attack is pretty obvious.
But the child will also sense the ‘Attack’ motivation when we’re comparing, judging, coercing, manipulating, belittling, dominating, insulting or criticising.
When we devalue what is important to the child.
Invading the child’s  space can also be experienced as ‘attack’.
Even labelling  (‘Don’t be cheeky.’/ ‘Be a good girl.’) Wouldn’t you struggle if somebody tried to put you in a box!

And if you attack me – I either attack back, or I take flight.
I attack back: I protest, I roar, I shout, I hit out (literally or figuratively), I attack your loved ones (e.g. hit my sister), I thwart you by not cooperating
Or I take flight:  I run out (slamming the door in protest), I focus on the TV / play station game.
I act as though I can’t hear you.
I disappear unhappily inside myself, even though I’m still in the room.

Likewise the child’s ‘fight or flight’ instinct is going to be triggered when the child senses an ‘Avoid’ motivation.
Besides blatant ignoring here’s some of the ignoring behaviours that can press our children’s buttons:

– focusing on the TV  / newspaper
– busy on the computer or mobile phone
– ‘I’m busy in my own head’ ignoring
– busy with supper or whatever
– high on drugs or alcohol (This can be a really scary one for the child:  ‘The lights are on but nobody’s home.’

Another form of ‘avoid’ is abandoning our child.
Do we abandon our children regarding their feelings and experiences?
‘Oh just sort it out yourself.’
‘Of course you like peas.’
‘Don’t be a baby.’
Think about abandoning your child on the ‘naughty step’.
Ignoring  a young child’s tantrum. (The young child’s brain is not adequately developed  for the child to be able to calm herself).
A baby wild animal would die if the mother left it.
For a young child a sense of abandonment can be an ‘I’m going to die here’ experience.
The child needs to feel connected.

The issue is not about how do I stop my child from being reactive, the issue is what is the child experiencing as my motivation.
What might my child’s reactive behaviour be telling me?

Attack, Avoid or Approach?  It’s your choice.

Childs outburst? Or withdrawal?

Rather than asking,
“What did I say?’
we need to ask ourselves, ‘How did I say it?’

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your responses.

This is a very good question!  As parents we tend to worry about our children’s hurt feelings when they don’t measure up.

The important thing here is:  How does the child explain her low grade?

Does she say, “I guess the teacher doesn’t like me,” or “The test wasn’t fair,” or “I can’t do math” ?

The first two responses put the responsibility of the low grade on external sources, meaning it has nothing to do with Elena.  There’s nothing she could have done differently to get a better grade.

The third response points to her low ability to explain her grade.  “I can’t do math,” implies that she sees herself as incapable and therefore not able to improve.  Her performance in math is stable, doesn’t change.

But perhaps Elena says, “I didn’t study enough.  I planned to study, but I got busy watching tv, and then I forgot about the test.”

Here she has taken responsibility for her low grade.  Her belief is that if she studies more, she can do better.   Her performance on this particular test was a result of something over which she has control:  how much she studies.

Next:  How parents can guide their child to a more accurate, healthy view of their successes and failures.

The Little Scientist

We often see our little ones work hard to accomplish something new.  The child who learns to whistle for the first time has tried over and over again.  Learning to snap one’s fingers is a similar process.  There are lots of trials and errors.  The child takes the feedback (not consciously) from all of the failed attempts and fine tunes those small movements until finally the SNAP is heard.  How exciting!

Here is a perfect opportunity to reflect to your child what you have observed.  Notice the effort:  “Jake, you worked hard to do that.  You tried over and over again until you finally could snap your fingers.”   There’s no need for a lot of hoopla over this.  Rather, calmly notice the effort.

Children have a natural drive to accomplish.  If adults make a “big deal” over new skills, the child may feel more motivated to get the reaction from adults than to learn on their own.  So it’s best to comment on the effort and mirror the child’s feelings:  “You certainly worked hard at that.  I think you’re feeling proud of yourself?”

Research scientists know that they may have hundreds of failures before they get the answer they are seeking.  In pharmaceutical research, for example, the right formula may be trial #583.  Imagine how the scientist feels when trial #198 is yet again not having the desired effects!  In order to complete her goal, she must persevere and try again and again…. and again.  Each failed attempt gives her another bit of information to guide her next trial.

People who fail the most have the most successes!