The Tiger who Came to Tea

Nick was six and a half when he arrived at the Leslie Centre along with his parents and his three year old sister, Olivia, to meet with Phyllis Brock and David Epston(1).  Phyllis Brock interviewed the family; David was an observer and reflector.

By comparison with Olivia, Nick was wan and looked worn-out and exhausted.  Despite the attractions of the playroom, he settled into his chair, resting his head on his shoulder; he was oddly immobile.

Mr. and Mrs. Foster provided David and Phyllis with an account of the problem. Up until eighteen months of age, Nick ate well, so much so, in fact, that Mrs. Foster, formerly a pediatric nurse, was reassured that he was faring well against the well-known statistical profile.  Then, suddenly and for no apparent reason, Nick started refusing a balanced diet. He gradually restricted himself to white bread and jam sandwiches.  This was relieved only by the occasional apple or raisin.  At the time, the Fosters didn’t seek help outside their family and friends, hoping that Nick would “grow out of it”.  Their dismay increased over time as he grew into his stringent regime rather than out of it.  Fearing that he wouldn’t be able to withstand the physical and intellectual demands of primary school, the family consulted a paediatrician when Mick turned five.  They were reassured that, despite his low weight, he was in no danger.  He was prescribed an appetite stimulant and “something else that made him a bit sleepy.”

Although Nick gained two pounds after this treatment, his diet was still restricted- he merely ate more bread and jam. The Fosters decided to discontinue his medications.  Their concerns increased as Nick became vulnerable to minor illnesses, was unable to participate in childhood games, and frequently retired to bed before 5 P.M.

By the time they arrived at the Leslie Centre, Nick’s parents felt they had exhausted every avenue to the problem’s solution “from bribery to battle”. In fact, David noticed a penchant for military metaphors, such as ‘struggle’, ’battle’, ‘fight’, and ‘warfare’.  Mrs. Foster felt more defeated than Mr. Foster, as she “served in the front lines”.  A shift-worker, Mr. Foster was not often present at mealtimes.

Periodically, Mrs. Foster would challenge Nick and “he would go to bed with nothing to eat for three nights”. “Well,” she explained, “then he couldn’t go to school, so back to sandwiches. He won another round”. Attempts such as this would be followed by another period of appeasement, until her determination to ‘win a round’ returned and she would try yet again.  The Fosters had become so desperate that they took the advice of a friend and sought referral to the Leslie Centre.

The therapists explored Mr. and Mrs. Foster’s susceptibility to self-accusation by re adding some of the post-treatment commentaries of other families who had come to the agency with feeding problems.  These commentaries focused on how other parents freed themselves from guilt and blame. The Fosters sought to join them.

By the end of the meeting, everyone agreed that they would be unable to go any further until certain preparations had been taken.  Mrs. Foster felt just enough hope to start by creating a tiger suit for Nick, that was discussed in some detail.  In view of Mrs. Foster’s ‘combat fatigue’, Mr. Foster agreed to undertake coaching Nick to roar and growl like a tiger.  Just as the family was leaving, something that turned out to be serendipitous and extraordinary occurred. Mr. and Mrs. Foster recommended to the therapists a book entitled ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’(2).

The second meeting began with Nick demonstrating his strength of purpose by ‘tiger growling’.  Phyllis Brock(the interviewing therapist) sought refuge behand a chair. Nick was surprised when the one-way screen began to vibrate. Phyllis explained: “David is behind the screen shaking with fear”.  When order was restored, the interviewer recovered her composure and inspected the ‘tigerishness’ of his tiger outfit and the ‘ferociousness’ of the screen-printed tiger on his t-shirt.

Another surprise was in order for Nick that day. Phyllis produced her own copy of ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ and invited Nick to sit by her while she told him a story. He readily agreed, saying that he know the story only too well.

Phyllis encouraged Nick to relax and close his eyes. “When you close your eyes I wonder if you can see pictures on a TV set in your mind”. Nick nodded as she went on.  “It is a black and white TV or a colour TV?” Nick reported that he could see a “big colour TV set” in his mind and started visualising the well-known tiger story on it screen as Phyllis read.

‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ tells the story of an outrageous tiger who invites himself into the home of a young boy and his younger sister when their parents are absent.  He has a prodigious appetite and eats absolutely everything in the house.  There are many illustrations of the tiger devouring cakes, tins of Tiger Food, pots of tea, and even water directly from the faucet. His appetite seems quite insatiable. He departs only after he has eaten out of house and home. When the parents return to their foodless home, their children tell them of the rapacious appetite of the unexpected visitor.  The parents seem to take all this in their stride but that night the family has to eat out. The next day, they restock at the  supermarket in anticipation of the tiger’s next visit. The book ends: ‘The tiger never came again!”

The story was read by Phyllis almost word for word. Except that, of course, there were some calculated changes. Every time the tiger appeared in the story, alterations were made to put a boy in a tiger suit in place of the tiger eg., the boy with blue eyes and blond hair dressed in a tiger suit did such a such or the boy who growls like a tiger did such and such.

Also, Nick’s sister Olivia was substituted for the sister in the story.  Other changes were made that associated Nick with the ravenous tiger. Before the conclusion of the story, Phyllis hesitated. Nick exclaimed: “And the tiger never came again!”  Phyllis took Nick’s hand and gave it a light squeeze.  She suggested that he return to his mental TV watching.  After a moment, she said: “In my story, the tiger comes every other day!”

Nick and Olivia were then asked to wait in another room while the adults talked together.  Mr. and Mrs. Foster were delighted and unable to conceal their grinning.  They joined the therapists in making conspiratorial arrangements for the tiger to come to tea(dinner) every other night. On the non-tiger days, Nick was to eat for himself; on the tiger days the Fosters were to play a cassette recording of Phyllis’s new version of ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ while Nick was being outfitted as his tiger.  Afterward Nick was to be escorted out the back door and around to the front door while Olivia ran to answer the doorbell.  He was to announce himself as a tiger by the requisite growling.  Then the tiger would be offered a meal of the food similar to the one illustrated in the book.  If they had any difficulties with this, a tiger food lunch box would serve as a replacement.

Three weeks later the Fosters returned to the centre.  By then Nick’s colouring had changed so that he looked normal for a boy in summer time. The family reported that “he was eating quite happily even on the nights between the tiger visits”. Everyone volunteered entries as they catalogued the wide range of meat, vegetables, and sweets he now was regularly consuming.  He was even demanding seconds and had to be reproached for eating off his sister’s plate!

David and Phyllis wondered if his tiger was eating so much that he might become overweight.  Nick indicated that this was an unlikely prospect.  His activity level was incomparable to this first meeting.  He rushed around the room, exploring the toy boxes, using the chalk board, and exciting Olivia with his enthusiasm. The Fosters were somewhat baffled by what they described as “his boisterousness,” although they assured David and Phyllis that this was a concern for which they would enjoy finding a solution.  They stated that they were increasing the interval between tiger visits and thought they might soon discontinue them.

Six months later, when David and Phyllis had a chance to gather follow-up information from the Fosters, Nick’s feeding problem seemed quite remote.  But the tiger had returned five more times in the interval, which added up to ten times in total.  Nick was no longer going to the doctor with minor illnesses, his hair had “life in it” compared to its being “crisp and dry” before and he was now fully engaged in the play activities of his age mates.

The following is an excerpt from the six month follow-up interview.  The interview picks up with Mrs. Foster recalling a visit to Nick’s pediatrician several months before they first met David and Phyllis.

“The paediatrician wasn’t at all worried about him,” Mrs. Foster began. “But were you?” David asked.  “Well, we just felt it was kind of a psychosomatic thing,” explained Mrs. Foster, “like there wasn’t anything physically or organically wrong with him that was causing him not to eat”.

“Well, it was a minimally satisfactory diet, but I guess parents want more for their kids,” David mused. “There’s more to life than jam sandwiches- there’s carrots, potatoes, and lemon meringue pies. Did you feel that he was being deprived of what was his due in terms of pleasure?”

“No,” interjected Mr. Foster, clarifying further, “I just thought that he has restricted himself so much that he was in a tight little corner with the energy and things.  I could see that he was restricting himself in that way”.

David paused for a moment and then asked, “What is your understanding of how this situation turned around so quickly? Any ways of thinking about it that might be helpful to us?”

“Well, you sort of helped us realise…..” Mr. Foster started and then stopped to gather his thoughts. “You sowed the seed and gave us some ideas for a way of going about it, and then we were able to carry it out.”

“Have you given yourself credit for it?” David wondered. “I worry that parents don’t give themselves enough credit. Do you feel that we did or you did it?”

“You gave us the ideas”, replied Mr. Foster. “We carried them out, but we needed the contact with you to be able to see and adopt a different approach to it.”

David shared another family’s outlook. “Some people said, ‘We got a different angle on the problem.’”

“Yes, yes, yes!” Mrs. Foster agreed enthusiastically. Mr. Foster concurred, “Oh yes, it was just that different approach and, as we said earlier on, you get so bound up in the thing yourselves”.

Next David turned to Nick: “I remember that you listened to a story on a cassette tape- right? And what would happen in that story?” Nick responded, “Well, he would come down the pathway and come up to the house and then he’d knock at the door”.

“Can you put a sample of his growling on this tape?” David requested. When Nick grinned ‘yes’, David quipped, “Shall I stand back?” Nick laughed and let loose a mighty growl. “Wow!” David exclaimed.

“And then did Olivia open the door?”

Nick nodded.

“Then what would happen when this tiger came into the house?”

“He would go and sit at the table with my apron on.”

Just then Olivia interjected, “And he would eat all that food!”

“All the food,” confirmed Nick.

“He would eat all the food?” echoed David, astonished.

“Yes, and he would be the last one eating at the end because I always stopped and had two or three minutes rest.”

“Why? Did you need a rest because you were so tired from all the eating you were doing?’

“Yes, and after dinner I had ice cream and I used to gobble that up and I always finished it.”

“Do you think this tiger got a little bit bigger and stronger with all the food it was eating?”

“Yes,” said Nick.

“And do you think this tiger that was getting bigger and stronger started having more fun? Making more noise and playing more?” David continued, building on his theme.”

“Yes,” repeated a smiling Nick.

“That’s a pretty good tiger. Do you think this tiger is a good friend of yours?” David inquired and when Nick nodded he asked, “What do you want to tell other boys and girls about being a tiger? Anything you want to say?”

Nick documented his comments on the tape: “Well, you start by going to the Leslie Centre and they tell you a story.”

“What’s the story like?” David asked. Nick said in to the microphone, “The tiger who came to tea and goes and eats everything and thinks he likes everything on his plate.”

“You go to Leslie Centre and they tell you a story and what happens then?” David summarized. 

Nick continued, “Then they tell you to make a tiger outfit and then you do our roar like this.” And with that Nick let out a mighty roar. Then he paused and added thoughtfully, “Sometimes when I see it though I think, “Oh, I hope I’m not going to be the tiger again ‘cause I feel grown up.”

David had to wonder out loud when her heard Nick’s comment: “Do you think that you don’t need the tiger anymore? You’ve grown past it?”

Nick nodded, smiling broadly.

“Do you think some boys and girls might be helped by the tiger?” David speculated.

“Yep!” said Nick.