Life will pull us in all sorts of directions…
…A bad night sleep….
… Traffic on the way to work….
…A sick kiddo….
…The next breaking news story.
Even our adult brains — each complete with its fully cooked prefrontal cortex able to self-regulate, empathize, problem-solve and plan for the future — get swept up in tides of emotional reactivity when confronted with stressors of daily life. It often takes just one challenging moment with our child for a low rumble of anxiety or frustration to bubble up and spill over. We may find ourselves responding to our child’s limit-testing or emotional upset with far less patience than we’d hoped: we raise our voices, take behaviors personally, or respond with criticism.
What I’m about to say may sound counter-intuitive, but these moments of “rupture” within the parent-child relationship are actually some of the most important building blocks to healthy human development when paired with the necessary “repair” responses to reconnect.
The Rupture-Repair Cycle serves as an essential opportunity to create safety and model what it means to be human. It means experiencing emotional misconnections which feel unsettling and even shaming, and then “repairing” the relationship to a deeper level of trust and unconditional love. In doing so, we send the message that our relationships can withstand the inevitable ups and downs of life. Because let’s face it, relationships are messy.
In a nutshell, a rupture can be summed up as a fracture in a normally positive relationship (between parent-child, partners, friends, etc) in which feelings get hurt or someone feels their needs were ignored. Common examples of ruptures between a child and caregiver are:
- Benign rupture — misunderstandings in which a parent doesn’t “get” the messages being sent by the child
- Oscillating disconnection — both parent and children have different needs for connection and solitude
- Limit-setting rupture — results from limits which parents have set to teach appropriate behaviors
- Toxic Rupture — parent looses control of emotions and behavior is frightening to a child
This is followed up by a repair, which my favorite neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel Siegel, describes as “reaching out, stating an apology, and expressing interest in whatever it was the child was excited about when the rupture happened… It requires that Person ‘A’ not be filled with pride that they do everything right all of the time. The person could say, ‘I made a mistake. So, here I’m telling you I think I made a mistake and I want to make a reconnection.'”
The key point to highlight in this process is that it includes the adult taking ownership for the misconnection through stating openly that a mistake was made and then really working to get back in tune with the child.
I breathed a big sigh of relief when I first learned about the Rupture-Repair process and how it can unfold both in the therapy room with a client or in personal relationships. I let go of the expectation to try to have the “most helpful or attuned” response in all situations, assuring myself that the process of correcting my mis-steps would actually result in far more relational benefits than attempting to respond perfectly or avoid conflict. I bring this knowledge with me into parenting and partnership, cutting myself some slack while also being mindful of the need for follow-up as soon as I’m ready to admit my mistake and repair from a place of calm.
While the cycle is important for children’s development, it’s important to keep a look out for roadblocks that may stand in the way of us “repairing” in a timely and appropriate fashion:
- Our unresolved issues from childhood
- Our shame (resulting in excessive concern about the opinion of others)
- Our guilt at own emotional experience (ie, anger or irritation)
- Our desire to “move on” as if the rupture had never occurred
So what ARE the most helpful ways to “repair” and respond to our child’s upset that create a feeling of safety and build secure attachment? While responses may look different depending on our child’s stage of development (I’ve listed my favorite books, separated by developmental level, that address key components of helpful adult responses to children’s behaviors and emotions below) it is essential we begin with ourselves and ensure we’re repairing from a place of inner calm. Otherwise, we run the risk of sending implicit messages through body language, tone of voice and facial expressions that we aren’t yet ready to let the incident go.
Here are some tips:
1) Remember the Power of Co-Regulation. Notice your own inner state and take a moment to calm in an internal “safe place” if needed (using an affirmation/mantra, smelling an essential oil, belly breathing). Engaging our children from a place of gentle leadership conveys a sense of security and trust that their emotional expression or behavior cannot overwhelm us. Children want to know that their parents can handle them. Go outside. Grab a glass of water. Repair in a different space than where the incident took place.
2) Acknowledge, Empathize and Reflect. Take some time to think about the situation from both your and your child’s perspective. This may include an inner exploration of what part of the incident was so triggering for you, as well as considering your unique child’s wants and needs when it comes to reconnection.
3) Initiate Reconnection. Approach your child and state your intention to repair. If your child is still upset, speak more softly and slowly. Children perceive tone of voice and pace of speech more than verbal content when they are upset; use less words, smaller words, and shorter sentences. In the case that your child’s lid is flipped, give them more time to deescalate (inviting them to use some self-regulation tools in their Safe Place — described in Pt III of this series) and then address the experience at a later time.
4) Remember to be Neutral, keeping both points of view in mind. You can try something like, “this has been so difficult for both of us to be fighting like this. I really want us to feel good about each other again. Let’s talk about it.” Listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings, and use reflection to restate what you are hearing to communicate your understanding.
5) Normalize Emotional Upset, while discussing the toxic aspect of the rupture. It is important that children feel like they have permission to meltdown, flip their lids and let their emotions take hold from time to time. We adults must model calming and coping skills to get through challenging emotions. All the while, it’s important to acknowledge how hurtful it can be for a child when parents don’t act rationally and say something we don’t mean.
6) Get Ahead of the Red (Zone). Recognize and name signs of escalation when you first notice them in either you OR your child. You can use a Feelings Thermometer metaphor, where “green zone” at the bottom is calm, “yellow” is energized/escalating and “red” is upset/dysregulated. Invite your child to engage in self-identified tools (available in a Safe Place you have set up with the child) that can help soothe the nervous system before flipping the lid completely. Using pre-made visual cues to help with calming directives can be helpful.
7) Don’t Give Up. If your initial bid for reconnection isn’t accepted after the first attempt, give it time and try again. Perhaps your child needs more physical space to deescalate on their own prior to having a discussion.
Below are some age-specific book recommendations I just love that explore the Rupture/Repair Cycle, discipline and limit-setting, and parenting self-reflection and self care:
Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers
- No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without Shame by Janet Lansbury, who also has a wonderful website complete with podcast and a huge amount of additional helpful information. I’ve loved using the “search” feature when looking for some feedback on specific concerns I’m experiencing with my toddler. Janet uses parent letters she has received to open conversation about everything from hitting or food refusal to sibling conflicts and self-care
Children of All Ages
- The Whole-brained Child and No-Drama Discipline by Drs. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, who offer workbooks to accompany each book.
- While Janet Lansbury’s work (above) focuses on Toddler-aged kiddos, she also shares some excellent parenting support helpful for kiddos of all ages.
For Parents and Caregivers: Books for Self-Reflection and Self-Care