Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
Every parent makes mistakes. As kind, nurturing and understanding as we want to be with our children, there are times when we lose it or say and do things that we later regret. The issue isn’t whether we make mistakes in our quest to be competent parents but how we go about resolving these mistakes and repairing any damage that may result.
Conflict and emotional breaks
When there is conflict between a parent and child, there is often an emotional disconnect that takes place. In other words, as harsh words are exchanged and the relational tension builds, it is easy to feel like the emotional closeness you want with your child is broken. The question is: how do you repair that broken relationship in a way that promotes true healing?
Step 1: Take the initiative to resolve the conflict
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As a parent, you have the task of teaching your child how to manage conflict. When you’re mad, it is easy to justify why you should not take the initiative. But, try to remember that your children haven’t had as much practice working through conflict as you. That means you need to look at these tense, conflicted situations as teaching opportunities and step toward them to try and resolve it.
This attempt at healing the relationship is one of the most important dynamics you can model for your children. When you pursue your child and attempt to work out the emotional difficulties, you are teaching your child that the relationship is worth restoring.
Your initiative sends the message to your child that you value them. Your willingness to take responsibility for any mistakes you made that led to the conflict show them how to own their part in the conflict. You are modeling humility by admitting fault or apologizing. I’m not suggesting you take responsibility for things that don’t belong to you. But, it is very easy to blame our children for things that we should take some responsibility for as well.
When this type of repair becomes a regular part of the parent-child relationship, it is much easier for the child to generalize this value on relationships and extend the same to others outside the family. With regular practice, think about how valuable that skill will eventually become for your child as they enter adulthood and navigate the workplace, marriage and even raising their own children.
Step two: Express your emotion appropriately to your child.
If you are angry you can tell your child you are angry – as long as you do it respectfully and without blame or shame. Don’t try to conceal or dismiss emotional moments with your child. In doing so you teach your child to conceal or minimize his or her emotion. The idea behind emotional repair it to put your feelings into words in a way that the other person can hear and respond to. By taking the lead and expressing some of your emotion, you give your children permission to express themselves. By appropriately expressing your emotion you also communicate that even strong emotion can be expressed and managed.
Believe it or not, it can be very comforting to children to know that their feelings (even strong ones) are a normal part of the rhythm of relationships. It models the fact that there is an inner life that can be acknowledged, felt and talked about.
Step three: Encourage your child to express their feelings.
Some parents routinely stop at the second step but this third step is critical if you want to really repair the relationship AND teach them a powerful skill.
Ask your child to tell you about how the conflict affected them. Allow them to express the full range of feelings and even do it strongly as long as it is done respectfully and does not create an unsafe situation. This may be uncomfortable for some who are not used to letting their children speak openly about their feelings. But this type of sharing can carve out a whole new dimension in your relationship together.
For example, I recently had a conversation with a mother who had a difficult conflict with her 11-year-old daughter. The mother was very upset and said some things at the peak of emotion that she later regretted. By the time we talked, she had already taken the intuitive to start working it out with her daughter and apologized for her harsh words. I asked her if she gave her daughter an opportunity to share her feelings about the conflict. The mother said the idea never occurred to her.
On our next visit, the first words out of this mom’s mouth were, “I had the most amazing conversation with my daughter.” When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “I asked my daughter to tell me how she felt about our argument. She opened up and told me feelings I would have never known about had I not asked. That conversation brought such healing and made us feel so much closer.”
Giving your child permission to label and express their feelings is not the same thing as giving them permission to say or do whatever they want. Boundaries and limits are clearly needed. But, when we accept their feelings, they are more able to accept the limits we set for them. And, when your child feels understood, their loneliness diminishes and their love for you deepens.
These principles of repair are not magical. They take practice and fine-tuning along the way. But, if you will take the initiative, share your feelings and encourage them to do the same, you will be teaching them one of the most important skills they will use for the rest of their lives.
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