Repair work can strengthen your relationship with your child, or any other loved one.
We expect that our children are going to misbehave. They can’t always control their impulses, and we’re there to let them know when they’ve crossed a line and tell them what to do differently in the future.
But our expectations for ourselves? Perfect behavior, 24/7. No mistakes.
There are a couple of problems with this. First, we’re human. We have feelings, triggers and limitations of our own. We’re inevitably going to mess up at some point. Second, if the only possibility is perfection, then there’s no script for how to own up to it when we do make a mistake.
Becky Kennedy, psychologist and author of “Good Inside,” is on a mission to change all this. She wants to normalize the idea that parents make mistakes too, and give people a script to follow in order to make things right. She calls this the work of repair, and presents it in a new TED Talk as “the single most important parenting strategy.”
Kennedy spoke with HuffPost about how parents can use repair to strengthen their relationships with their children — or anyone in their lives, for that matter.
What Is Repair?
Choosing to do repair with your child is a big step, and it can take some practice (and courage!). But the premise is fairly straightforward.
“Repair is the act of returning to a moment of disconnection, taking responsibility for your behavior, and acknowledging its impact on another,” Kennedy said.
Wondering what that might sound like in simpler language? Chazz Lewis, a parent and teacher coach who goes by Mr. Chazz on Instagram, told HuffPost, “The way I define it for children is to ‘try to make it better.’” Even young children can comprehend that this means more than simply saying “I’m sorry.”
When we mess up, we can’t go back in time and change what we did, but we can shift how our kids carry forward the memory of what happened.
When you lose your cool and yell at your child, they likely feel overwhelmed, confused or scared. This is the moment of disconnection. You can’t erase those feelings, but you can return to that moment with your kid and add another layer of emotion.
Kennedy explained: “What we end up doing, by going back and taking responsibility for our behavior and acknowledging its impact, is we actually get to add all the elements to that moment that were missing in the first place — compassion, understanding, coherence, safety, love. And in that way we actually kind of change the way that event or memory ends up living in someone’s body.”
Step 1: Self-Compassion
Imagine that your kid leaves his shoes in the middle of the hallway. You trip over them and then yell about how he never picks his things up like you ask him to. He screams, “I hate you!” and runs into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
Immediately, you feel badly and wish you hadn’t yelled. But instead of pretending it didn’t happen or making an excuse for your behavior, you give yourself some time to calm down.
Before you go to knock on his door, you first need to do a little repair work with yourself — not to absolve you of your guilt, but to separate what you did from who you are. You made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
This self-compassion, Kennedy emphasized, is not a way to let yourself “off the hook.” In fact, she argues that it is the way to truly hold yourself accountable.
“If you want to let yourself off the hook for your bad behavior, the single best thing you can do is hold yourself in contempt and self-blame,” she said. “When you’re so critical of yourself, when you’re holding yourself in such contempt, you actually cannot repair with someone else or learn from that.”
Growth, she says, starts with self-compassion. “If we want to leave ourselves on the hook for change, we have to first separate our behavior, what we did, from our identity, who we are,” she said.
You might tell yourself something like: “I made a mistake, but I’m a good parent.”
Step 2: Responsibility
After we’ve taken a moment to calm down and be empathetic with ourselves, it’s time to talk to our child. We want to return to the moment of rupture, take responsibility for our behavior, and acknowledge that it likely hurt them.
Lewis offered this example: “I’m sorry for yelling. I noticed that scared you. It wasn’t OK for me to yell at you. Next time, I will pause, take a deep breath and find a better way to get your attention.”
Even if you’re not exactly sure how you’re going to do it differently in the future, it’s meaningful that you say you will try, Lewis explained. “Even if we don’t have the solution of what we will do next time in that moment, the act of making a commitment can move us closer to finding a solution on our own or collaborating with the child about what can happen next time we are in this moment,” he said. “When we make that commitment out loud to our children, we are more likely to hold ourselves accountable for the future.”
It’s Possible To Repair In The Moment, Or In The Future
When we blow up at our kids, we can come to them right afterward to do this repair work — but this isn’t the only sort of scenario in which repair work can occur.
Sometimes, Kennedy says, we can catch ourselves in the moment and course-correct as we go. That might look something like this, she said:
“Hey, Mom, can I spend the night at ...”
“You’re always asking for sleepovers! ... Hey, whoa, let me try that again. That did not come out the way I wanted. That did not did not feel good to either of us. OK. You want to have a sleepover tonight. We have a lot of family stuff going on tonight, but maybe we could find another time?”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s also possible to do repair for incidents that occurred many years ago, or for a pattern of behavior rather than a specific event. Kennedy offered the following example:
“I think there were a lot of moments where I didn’t show up in a supportive way. I’ve learned things now that I really didn’t know then. And when I look back, I think about how many times I wish I had been there for you. ... I remember some of those moments. My guess is you remember others. There are probably more that neither of us can call to mind. But still, they happened, and I’m really sorry. And if you ever want to talk to me about any of those things, I’ll listen.”
When you’re doing repair work with your child, don’t follow up your admission of doing something wrong with a “but ...” (As in, “I’m sorry I yelled, but you should have put away your shoes.”) This “negates our responsibility for our actions,” said Lewis.
He noted that we’re quick to call children out on this when they do it, but reluctant to notice that we’re guilty of doing the same thing.
“We often chastise children for negating responsibility for their actions when they say things like ‘he made me do it,’ ‘she told me to do it’ or ‘they did it too,’” Lewis said. “However, we have a tendency to unconsciously model the same behavior that we want them to stop.”
Kennedy refers to these types of attempts as justifications for our behavior, which aren’t really repair work. “Nobody’s behavior makes us yell,” she said. “A feeling of frustration does not justify a yell of frustration.”
Another thing you want to avoid is asking your child for reassurance. Kennedy said this might sound like: “It’s OK, right? You’re not mad anymore? You still love me?”
Asking “do you forgive me?” can fall into this same category, she said.
One of the benefits of starting with some self-repair is that when we do go to our child, we are less likely to ask for this kind of reassurance and more likely to hold ourselves accountable for our actions.
While the words “I’m sorry” may be part of your repair, it should be more than a simple apology. You want to really go back into the moment of rupture and acknowledge what you did and how it made them feel, bringing some connection to a moment of disconnection.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of a nonapology like “I’m sorry you feel that way,” Kennedy noted. Phrases like this one “shut down conversation and lead us to feel more alone,” she said. Repair, however, “opens up conversation and it makes us feel more connected.”
The Rewards Of Repair
None of this is easy, but Kennedy and Lewis believe that the work of repair is worth it, both for your child and for yourself.
Lewis explained how repair benefits kids: “Safety and connection is necessary for a child to learn and grow optimally. When we repair, we can reestablish the safety and connection, so that children can learn and grow in a healthy way.”
Repair benefits parents, too. Holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes and explaining to our children how we will do better “helps us grow, stay aligned with our values and become closer to the person we are hoping to be,” Lewis said.
He noted that it can make some people uncomfortable to engage in repair work with their children when they are in front of family members. Being conscious of this and curious about it may be part of your own growth, especially if you are trying to break a cycle in your family. Lewis suggests that you ask yourself: “When you were a child, how did the adults in your life react to your mistakes?”; “How did that feel as a child?”; “How ready are you to admit your mistakes as an adult?”; and “Do you feel that you are worthy of love when you make mistakes?”
“Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process,” he said. “If we can embrace our mistakes, our potential for learning is unlimited.”
Kennedy emphasizes that instead of looking back at past mistakes, repair work is about looking forward. Parents should feel empowered, she said, knowing that by going to their children with an honest offer of repair, they can prevent their children from learning unhealthy coping mechanisms that often carry into adulthood.
“I say to myself: ‘I have such an opportunity. I can actually stop self-blame and self-doubt. ... I can actually stop that from happening right now for my son,’” she said. “I feel like a magician.”