Imagine yourself lowering a ladle into a bucket of cool water to scoop out a drink. If the bucket is full, you can probably take a ladleful without much of a negative impact. However, taking a scoop from a mostly-empty bucket may cause you to uncomfortably scrape the sides and leave very little behind. Knowing you’ll inevitably have to scoop more water from the bucket, what can you do to make that a better experience? Make sure there’s plenty of water in the bucket!
When working with parents, this metaphor can help to communicate the importance of investing in their positive interactions with their children. Some of the duties of parenting include interactions that are necessary, but can be like scooping water out of the bucket. Active ignoring of mild negative behavior, giving effective directives to change a child’s behavior, following through on consequences, and other parenting tasks can each be experienced by children as dipping the ladle into the bucket of the parent-child relationship. The child’s reaction and the impact of these interactions on the relationship may depend, in part, on how much water started out in the bucket.
A child’s emotional bucket is filled by positive interactions with another person. For example, complementing the child for something done well, asking the child’s opinion about something, offering the child options, and laughing together can all help to fill the bucket. Buckets are also person-specific, so each person in the child’s life should invest in filling his or her own bucket with a child. When the bucket has enough inside of it, we can scoop water out when we need it without having a negative impact on our relationship.
When a parent-child bucket seems to be low, a nice homework activity may be to focus on increasing positive interactions during the week. The parent and child can develop a menu of choices together, and then a child’s emotional bucket is filled by positive interactions with another person. The child might pick an activity from the menu to share with the parent outside of session. Parent and child should then spend their time focused on enjoying the activity and their time together. Parents may find it helpful to remind themselves that their goal during the activity is to focus on the positives, rather than being pulled to redirect or correct their child, to fill the bucket. Catching anticipatory automatic thoughts that may be inaccurate or unhelpful before or during the activity may be helpful if there are thoughts that could interfere with enjoying positive time. Mood ratings before and after the activity may also help the parent and child notice any emotional lift they experience from adding water to their buckets. Over time, their investment in keeping the bucket level high will then help when parents inevitably have to take out a ladleful of water by redirecting, imposing consequences, or other necessary scoops.
There is an important caveat to the bucket metaphor that we should keep in mind. The scooper that adds water to the bucket is smaller than the scooper that takes water away. That means that when we add water to the bucket, it does not replace the water we’ve scooped out at the same rate. In fact, the aim is to have five interactions that add to the bucket for every one interaction that scoops out from the bucket. This 5:1 positive to negative ratio ensures that we keep enough water in the bucket to safely scoop out water when it is needed.
Teachers, coaches, and other adults who work with youth may also find the bucket metaphor to be helpful, as the idea holds across most interpersonal relationships. Consistent with the CBT principles of skill-building and transparency, teaching this idea directly to youth may also be helpful as they explore their own style of relating to others. Helping children and adolescents invest in their current relationships with friends and family and move toward romantic relationships and parenting, can help them build their own positive sense of self-efficacy and beliefs about relationships as they move forward in their lives.