A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: Relational Repair After Parent-Child Conflicts

“Every time you slow down and respond instead of reacting, it’s like you’re sewing a stitch in the fabric of your relationship with your child.”

A parent

Without even meaning to, not only did this parent aptly describe the practice of parenting with mindfulness and intention, but also the relationship resilience that can develop as a result. 

Inevitably, there are moments of rupture in your relationship with your child – when the relational fabric gets torn and needs to be mended. Ruptures in relationships happen when someone’s behaviors or actions have led to a disconnection. It might be something you or your child did, or even something one or both of you failed to do. However it started, one of you is left with uncomfortable feelings as a result. What’s helpful to know is that the quality of a parent-child relationship is less impacted by the ruptures themselves, but rather the presence or lack of parent-initiated repair

Regularly initiating repair with your child might come very easily to you – particularly if you grew up with adults who consistently acknowledged it when they noticed they’d caused you emotional harm, failed to meet your emotional needs or simply that the relationship had been strained in some way. Perhaps it was commonplace for them to take responsibility for how those ruptures may have impacted you, and to validate any hurt feelings that got activated for you. 

For other parents the idea of initiating repair after a rupture with your child may bring up feelings of discomfort. Maybe you grew up in an environment where the adults didn’t model working through conflict in healthy and productive ways. The tendency was to forge ahead as if the conflict never happened. Or, after your parent hurt your feelings, they felt so intensely guilty that they overcompensated by relaxing rules or using bribes to get back in your good graces. That might make it hard to so explicitly revisit the difficult feelings that get stirred up during a conflict with your child.  What about when you were the one who caused the conflict as a child? Did your parents demand apologies or use guilt or shame to compel you not to make mistakes in the future? If so, you might now feel so triggered by your child’s mistakes that your own anger or hurt gets in the way of being calm enough to intentionally reconnect. 

When you miss the opportunity to openly express your awareness that a disconnect occurred, and own your part in creating that disconnection, your child is left on their own to make meaning of what happened in the relationship. With their underdeveloped understanding of relationships and the motivations of others, kids can come to the conclusion that bad feelings in a relationship are their fault, or that their feelings don’t have value. Without repair, unresolved feelings of shame, anger, guilt, resentment, or sadness can contribute to ongoing cycles of conflict. 
After a rupture between you, your child may feel misunderstood and alone not knowing what to do with their lingering feelings of hurt or frustration, and that can show up as challenging behavior. Meeting those behaviors with blame or trying to force apologies can inadvertently activate shame. Kids can’t function at their best when they’re carrying a lot of shame – and it may even increase challenging behaviors. Similarly, blaming yourself to such a degree that you feel a lot of shame will impact your ability to be the calm and benevolent captain of the ship that your child needs you to be. So how do you actually *do* repair?

Here are 5 steps to guide you through the process. 

  1. Take the Lead

In the aftermath of a disconnection with your child – however small – once the heat of the moment has passed, initiate repair by showing awareness of the rupture and acknowledging that it happened. It’s important that you’re undertaking this from a place of genuine empathy. Better to wait until you’re able to proceed with real compassion than to simply recite the words you think you’re ‘supposed to’ say. Your child will feel that inauthenticity. Repair is about authentic reconnection. 

  1. Actively Listen

Invite your child to tell you the story of how the disconnection affected them emotionally and how those emotions showed up as sensations in their body, thoughts that went through their head, or actions they took. Make gentle eye contact, breathe deeply and slowly if it helps you stay calm. Listen with curiosity and without judgement. Stay connected to your own body sensations and emotions that arise in response. Resist the urge to correct details, make rebuttals or assign blame. Allow differences of opinion and perspective to just be there. 

  1. Validate

Reflect back to them your understanding of their perspective and their experience of the rupture and the impact it had on them. Validation isn’t about agreeing or condoning. It’s about expressing that you know that their reality is valid and real for them, and that you care about the emotions they’re having about that reality. 

  1. Take Responsibility

Own, be accountable and apologize for your part in what’s happened. Explain why it was wrong and what you wish you’d done instead. Don’t just say you’re going to do better or try harder. Specifically state what you’re actually going to do or not do in the future. 

  1. Collaborate

Brainstorm together to identify at least one actionable step each of you will take toward making it better, or preventing these kinds of relationship breaches and hurt feelings in the future. If the child was the cause of the rupture in the relationship, let them know that you want to work with them to make a plan going forward that works for you both. 

Making this kind of intentional repair has the positive side effect of strengthening the relationship and building trust between you and your child. Your child comes to understand that you are a fallible human that makes mistakes just like kids do. They gain trust that the relationship can withstand some bumps and bruises and still be strong. Making repair is telling your child: This is what taking responsibility, apologizing for one’s actions, and prioritizing a relationship looks like.  

It’s important to remember that even when kids are the cause of a relational rupture – it’s not their responsibility to repair it. As the adult it’s your job to re-establish connection and initiate repair as soon as possible after a conflict. It’s your job to take the lead, acknowledge the rupture, resist the urge to blame, criticize or invalidate and choose active listening instead. Through the process of repairing disconnections you’re modeling the trust and consideration you want in your relationship and how you want them to behave in their relationships in the future. 

Of course, being the fallible human that you are – you’re not going to have the wherewithal to engage in the repair process every single time there’s a disconnect with your child. So try for more often than not. Forgive yourself when you mess up. Forgive yourself for the times you didn’t repair ruptures that you were aware of. It’s never too late to repair a rupture, no matter how much time has passed. It makes sense that if you didn’t experience relational repair in your own upbringing that it may not have occurred to you to do or that you might find it incredibly difficult to do. It’s okay!  You can start now. Practice makes progress.

Ruptures will happen – accept it! Just be sure to make repair. And know that each of those stitches makes the fabric of your relationship with your child that much stronger.