As humans, we all need to experience closeness to survive. One of our primary needs is the need for connection and safety and, in our earliest years, that is supposed to come from our first relationships. These first relationships set the stage for how we will interact with others and come to view ourselves. When these early relationships provide the foundations of safety, trust, love, and warmth, we become connected adults whose later-life health outcomes are far more promising. When these early relationships do not provide these foundational pieces, the disconnection from ourselves and others that is left as a result leaves us with poorer later-life health outcomes.
In our formative years, we’re exposed to relational scripts. That is, the set of rules and patterns of behaviour that others use to relate with one another. We watch how the adults in our lives handle their emotions (or don’t), model boundary setting (or don’t) and keep us safe (or don’t). They are modelled by our caregivers, and other older people around us, whose job it is to keep us safe and protected. For example, we might all recall a teacher who yelled a lot or an older role model we looked up to. Chances are, those we came to admire had a more connected way of relating to us or meeting our needs.
What does this have to do with parenting? Well, the relational scripts we are exposed to early in life determine the relational scripts we use in adulthood – as adults, as friends, and as parents. In short: how our parents parented influences the way we parent. For all of us, the way our parents parented was largely determined by the way they were parented or the ways that people around them were parenting. At one point, it was believed that too much love or too much nurturing would result in children who are weak and dependent with little resilience. We’ve known for a while that that’s not true.
As we move away from more harsher styles of parenting and replace it with a softer and more compassionate approach to relationships, new questions develop. A common question that parents have is about how to deal with conflict at home. Rupture looks different for every family, but most commonly it looks like: a disagreement, a parent yelling at their child, parents not agreeing, a child being sent to their room, or a parent not being able to manage their reactions.
It’s important to note that rupture exists on a spectrum. On one end is less hurtful types of conflicts, like a small argument, and on the other end is violence, where there are clear results of harm on a young person. With most (if not all) types of rupture, there are often big feelings involved such as anger, frustration, sadness, and even fear. Parents who have not processed their pain and big feelings tend to work them out on those they are close with, which is something important to keep in mind.
At the very same time, rupture in relationships is normal. It happens in all families. I’m sure a lot of you who are breaking problematic cycles of parenting (cyclebreakers!) are aware of how common this is. A lot of parents work hard to undo these patterns by reparenting themselves (and some don’t, of course). If you are here, it likely means you’ve been doing this work for a while or are just getting started. To that, I say thank you and I see you. Like many, you’re reading this because you want to learn how you can make it better or make the hard parts just a little bit easier.
Develop a Deliberate Practice of Repair
As a rule of thumb, remember that for every rupture, there should be an intentional and deliberate practice of repair. I’ve explained what rupture can look like above but it’ll be up to you to decide what rupture looks like in your life. My advice is to trust your intuition and be present in each situation in order to determine how it shows up. Repair is the same. It can be different for every relationship so it will be important to be flexible in your approach and kind in your expectations. Below, I will outline the key characteristics that should be present when you’re engaging in a repair process. Note that this is a process and no one is expected to always do relationships perfectly. These tips can be useful for all relationships, not just those with your child.
1. Establish safety within the relationship.
In order to engage in repair after rupture, trust and safety must be present in the relationship. In essence, the person you’re repairing with has to trust that you mean what you say and know that you are there to protect them and keep them safe. Remember that what you need(ed) to feel safe and secure in relationships may not be the same for your child. Safety within relationships is built when children feel the emotions that come along with connection, nurturance, and play without consequence. This can happen both verbally and non-verbally. For example, parents might cuddle or kiss their children to let them know they’re safe, they may play with them to signal closeness, or they may say positive and encouraging things about them or their relationship (“I really like that about you!” / “You’re such a trustworthy friend.” / “Thank you for helping me clean up.”)
2. Remain accountable to your words, feelings, and choices.
In our quest to model repairing, the goal is to demonstrate the behaviours that we want to see. That means that we must be accountable to everything we do in the context of each relationship. This does require self-awareness and a willingness to be imperfect. I’ll give you some examples. If we want our children to be kind to others, we have to model what that looks like. Similarly, we have to model what it looks like to not hold grudges and let things go, how to share, how to talk kindly to ourselves when we make a mistake, and how to apologize and take accountability for our wrongdoings. When we model how to do this, we give young people a script they can use in the future (this is called scripting). We must also be accountable to the ways our big feelings show up in relationships. It’s okay to feel angry and frustrated and sad and hurt. It is not connecting, however, to act your feelings out on others or use young people as a place to offload your big feelings. We should also remember that the words we use to talk about ourselves will likely be the words our kids use to talk about themselves. Young people often use the words, feelings, and choices of those around them as a barometer for how they should think, feel, and act. If you want them to be accountable for their stuff, it’s important that you model and remain accountable to yours too.
3. Know what to say (or not say) and when to talk (or not talk).
It can be hard to know what to do or say when rupture occurs. For some of us, conflict might bring up some hard things from the past. In some people, conflict can trigger panic, cause us to fight back harder, or might cause us to leave the situation or shut down. This is called our fight, flight, or freeze response and they are normal reactions to threat or danger. It is normal for a rupture in relationships to feel like danger and threat. While the threat may not be astronomic, our bodies and brains often cannot decipher the size of the problem. In essence, arguing is arguing, yelling is yelling, and rupture is rupture. So, when we exhibit these responses during a conflict it’s important to be aware of these patterns and what that means for the relationship. While you have your responses, the young people in your life do too. Pay attention and see if their response is to shut down, to freeze, to fight back, to run away, or to avoid. Behaviour is communication and it’s there to tell us something. Running away, shutting down, or avoiding conflict might mean they need time alone or need to be somewhere safer. Fighting back or matching your yelling might mean they’re frustrated or hurt too. And being defiant might mean they’re not being heard or fully listened to. These scenarios can be tricky, especially when you don’t know what to say. In fact, let me give you permission to be imperfect right now. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say to make it all better. Repair takes time, which means you have to be present and resist the urge to rush through it. If you find yourself not knowing what to say, remember that your goal is to soothe and connect with them. Sometimes your presence or a gentle backrub will be all they need. Sometimes they just need to hear that it’s going to be okay and that you’re not going to be angry forever. Kids don’t often have the best sense of time, so it’s also helpful to provide structure for them so they know what to expect (“I’m feeling frustrated so I just need a minute to calm myself down.”)
4. Offer yourself and your child some compassion.
When all is said and done, we all wish we could lower the stakes and not feel so guilty when we make mistakes. Compassion is a powerful tool that helps us soften the edges a little bit and allows us to add more warmth and nurturance through tough times. Compassion for yourself might look like apologizing to yourself for messing up or telling yourself that you’re trying your best. Compassion for your child might look like reframing the thought “He’s giving me a hard time!” to “He’s having a hard time.” Compassion requires that we take a step back from the situation to remember what really matters; that connection is better than conflict, and compassion should outweigh critique.
I hope you’ve had a chance to read through these words and figure out what resonates with you. It is not expected that everything will be true for you or that you always be required to parent perfectly. Rather than try to avoid rupture by not talking about it, let’s embrace rupture as a natural and normal part of healthy relationships. You can either make rupture an opportunity for learning and connection or you can let it be the source of your greatest troubles. Embracing rupture as normal isn’t to absolve accountability or excuse the important role you have in parenting your child. At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for our children. What’s best is that children experience healthy models of rupture and repair in early relationships so they don’t have to figure out how to do it alone in adulthood. That may just be your best parenting superpower.