The Aqua Balloon: An allegory about growth and love from the psychology consulting room

In my therapeutic work with children and young people I incorporate play activities in order for them to experience themselves in a way that challenges existing unhelpful ideas. My intent is to support and strengthen an alternative self-concept that is reflective of attachment security and secure attachment representations (a.k.a. internal working models). That is, I utilise play to support and strengthen positive beliefs about self, other, and world, including:

  • that the child or young person is capable and a person of worth;
  • that adults understand them and can be relied upon; and
  • that they are safe in their world.

A particular focus of my therapeutic work is supporting experiences of mastery. Experiences of mastery help to promote beliefs that the young person is capable and able to positively influence their world. It promotes a belief that they are (inherently) safe. These beliefs are necessary for all children and young people to explore, learn, and develop, unimpaired by the restricting and debilitating effects of anxiety. It is particularly necessary to support and strengthen these beliefs when children are recovering from a tough start to life.

One of the ‘mastery activities’ I often do with children and young people is to play ‘Balloon Volleyball’. This is a favourite of the vast majority of children and young people who have consulted with me across the past two decades. They invariably win, but they have to ‘overcome adversity’ in order to do so. I temper how much ‘adversity’ each child experiences based on how capable they believe themselves to be. Adversity comes in the form of me making rallies last longer or shorter, or me winning a proportion of rallies. In fact, the majority of games over the years have been decided by a single point!

So, there is always a balloon in my consulting room.

Across the last few weeks of last year there was an aqua-coloured balloon. I have been using balloons of some quality, such that they have been lasting for weeks at a time without popping or deflating. The aqua balloon survived at-least a couple of weeks without popping or deflating. However, when I returned to work after a three-week break over Christmas and New Year the aqua balloon had lost much of its air. It was deflated. This was not through overuse. Rather, it happened during a period where it received no attention and interaction.

In contrast, children and young people commonly grow during holiday periods (in Australia, the Christmas and New Year break falls within the long summer break from school). In my therapeutic work I have a ritual where I check on the growth of children and young people when they attend for consultations. It is such a ritual that they often position themselves to be measured at the beginning of a consultation and remind me to measure them if I forget. I am not too precise with how I record their growth, such that they almost always seem to have grown between consultations! This is very important to a great many of the children and young people who consult with me. This ‘growth’ is often quite pronounced during the summer holiday, where there is a longer gap between the consultations before and after Christmas.

The first child to consult with me in 2020 found the aqua balloon in its shrunken and deflated state. This led me to comment that, though it had survived many weeks of use prior to Christmas, it seemed to have shrunk as a result of no attention and interaction.

I concluded that attention and interaction must be good for us . As the child had not shrunk (a rare event and relief to most children and young people) and, in fact, had grown, they must have received sufficient attention and interaction for their growth.

The child smiled that smile you see in moments of pure happiness and contentment. They knew they were loved.

About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
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