We expect our children to behave badly. 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 of ourselves? Perfect behavior, 24/7. No mistakes.
There are some problems with this. First, we are human. We have our own feelings, triggers and boundaries. We will inevitably make mistakes at some point. Second, if the only option is perfection, then there is no script for how we should deal with it when we make a mistake.
Becky Kennedy, psychologist and author of “Good inside“has made it its mission to change all of this. She wants to normalize the idea that parents make mistakes too, and give people a script they can follow to make things right. She calls this the repair work and presents it in a new TED talk as “the most important parenting strategy.”
Kennedy spoke to HuffPost about how parents can use repair to strengthen their relationships with their children — or anyone else in their lives.
What is repair?
Deciding to make a repair with your child is a big step and may take some practice (and courage!). But the premise is pretty simple.
“Repair is the act of returning to a moment of separation, taking responsibility for one’s behavior and acknowledging its impact on others,” Kennedy said.
Wondering what that might sound like in simpler language? Chazz Lewis, a parent and teacher coach, stopping by Mr. Chazz on Instagram told HuffPost, “I define it for kids as ‘trying to do better.'” Even young children can understand that this means more than just saying “I’m sorry.”
If we mess up, we can’t go back in time and change what we did, but we can change the way our children carry on the memory of what happened.
If you lose your temper and yell at your child, he or she will likely feel overwhelmed, confused, or scared. This is the moment of separation. You can’t erase these feelings, but you can return to that moment with your child 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 that we can actually add to this moment all the elements that were originally missing – compassion, understanding, coherence, safety, love . And in doing so, we actually change the way that event or memory ultimately lives in a person’s body.”
Step 1: Self-compassion
Imagine your child leaves his shoes in the middle of the hallway. You trip over it and then yell about how he never picks up his things like you asked him to. He screams, “I hate you!” and runs into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
You immediately feel bad and wish you hadn’t screamed. But instead of pretending it didn’t happen or making excuses for your behavior, give yourself some time to calm down.
Before you knock on his door, you must first do a little repair work on yourself – not to absolve yourself of your guilt, but to separate what you have done 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 this is the way to truly hold yourself accountable.
“If you want to exonerate yourself of your wrongdoing, the best thing you can do is despise yourself and blame yourself,” she said. “When you are so critical of yourself, when you despise yourself so much, you actually cannot reconcile or learn from someone else.”
Growth, she says, begins with self-compassion. “If we want to expose ourselves to change, we must first separate our behavior, what we have done, from our identity, who we are,” she said.
You might say to yourself something like, “I made a mistake, but I’m a good parent.”
Step 2: Responsibility
After taking a moment to calm down and be sensitive to 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 probably hurt them.
Lewis gave this example: “I’m sorry I yelled. I noticed that this scared you. It wasn’t okay for me to yell at you. Next time I’ll stop, take a deep breath, and find a better way to get your attention.”
Even if you’re not entirely sure how you’ll do it differently in the future, it makes sense for you to say you’ll try, Lewis explained. “Even if we don’t have a solution at that moment about what we will do next time, making a commitment can bring us closer to finding a solution ourselves or working with the child about what may happen next time.” at this moment,” he said. “When we speak this commitment out loud to our children, we are more likely to hold ourselves accountable for the future.”
A repair is possible immediately or in the future
If we blow up our kids, we can come to them right after to do that repair work – but that’s not the only scenario in which repair work can occur.
Sometimes, says Kennedy, we can hold on in the moment and correct course over time. It might look something like this, she said:
“Hey, mom, can I spend the night at…”?
“You always ask about places to stay! …Hey, whoa, let me try again. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. That didn’t feel good for either of us. OK. You want to stay overnight tonight. We have a lot to do with family tonight, but maybe we can find another time?”
At the other end of the spectrum, it is also possible to repair incidents that occurred many years ago, or a pattern of behavior in place of a specific event. Kennedy offered the following example:
“I think there were a lot of moments where I wasn’t supportive. I’ve learned things now that I really didn’t know back then. And when I look back, I think of how many times I wished I had been there for you. … I remember some of those moments. I suspect you remember others. There are probably more that none of us can remember. But it still happened and I’m really sorry. And if you ever want to talk to me about any of these things, I will listen.”
When doing repair work with your child, don’t follow your admission of doing something wrong with a “But…” (such as “I’m sorry I yelled, but you should have put your shoes away.” ) .”) This “denies our responsibility for our actions,” Lewis said.
He noted that we are quick to point out children when they do it, but are reluctant to acknowledge that we are guilty of doing the same thing.
“We often reprimand children for denying responsibility for their actions when they say things like, ‘He made me do it,’ ‘She told me to do it,’ or ‘You did it too.'” said Lewis. “However, we tend to subconsciously model the same behavior that we want them to stop.”
Kennedy describes such attempts as justifications for our behavior that are not actually repair work. “Nobody’s behavior makes us scream,” she said. “A feeling of frustration does not justify a scream of frustration.”
Another thing to avoid is asking your child for reassurance. Kennedy said it might sound like this: “It’s OK, right? You’re not mad anymore? You still love me?”
Questions: “Will you forgive me?” can fall into the same category, she said.
One of the benefits of starting with some self-repair is that when we go to our child, we are less likely to ask for this type of reassurance and more likely to hold ourselves accountable for our actions.
While the words “I’m sorry” can be part of your repair, it should be more than a simple apology. You really want to go back to the moment of rupture and acknowledge what you did and how it made them feel in order to connect to a moment of separation.
We’ve all experienced a non-apology like, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” Kennedy noted. Phrases like this “break up the conversation and make us feel lonelier,” she said. However, repairing “opens up the conversation and makes us feel more connected.”
The rewards of repair
None of it is easy, but Kennedy and Lewis believe the repair work is worth it, both for your child and for yourself.
Lewis explained how repairs benefit children: “Safety and connection are necessary for a child to learn and grow optimally. When we repair, we can restore safety and connection so children can learn and grow in healthy ways.”
The repair also benefits the parents. Holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes and explaining to our children how we can do better “helps us grow, stay true to our values and get closer to the person we want to be,” Lewis said.
He pointed out that some people may feel uncomfortable carrying out repair work with their children when they are in full view of their family members. Being aware of this and being curious about it can be part of your own growth, especially if you are trying to break a vicious cycle in your family. Lewis suggests that you ask yourself, “How did the adults in your life react to your mistakes as a child?”; “How did it feel as a child?”; “As an adult, how willing are you to admit your mistakes?”; and “Do you feel like you are worthy of love when you make mistakes?”
“Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process,” he said. “If we can accept our mistakes, our learning potential is unlimited.”
Kennedy emphasizes that repair work is about looking forward rather than looking back at past mistakes. Parents should feel empowered, she said, knowing that by offering their children an honest offer of repair, they can prevent their children from learning unhealthy coping mechanisms that often continue into adulthood.
“I say to myself: ‘I have such an opportunity. I can actually stop self-blame and self-doubt. … I can actually prevent this for my son now,’” she said. “I feel like a magician.”