As a parent, most of us have been in a situation with our children where we simply lose our cool. Perhaps their behavior triggered something in you and you lost your temper. Maybe you were just stressed out or sleep-deprived and struggled to keep your emotions in check. Either way, you yelled at your child, and now you feel awful. What should you do now? How can you go about repairing your relationship with your child? Should you worry that this incident has ruined your relationship with your child? Let’s take a look at some of the science behind parent–child relationships for answers.
The Science of Rupture and Repair
While none of us look at these moments of yelling and disconnection fondly, it’s helpful to understand that the process of rupture and repair is a common aspect of all relationships, even parent–child relationships. Psychologists tell us that avoiding conflict in relationships is not really possible or healthy.1 Instead, our focus should be on developing ways to manage the disconnections and move forward.
In fact, studies of parent–child relationships reveal that these minor experiences of disconnection can be a crucial part of children’s development. When parents are not “in sync” perfectly with their children, the children experience unpleasant emotions. In the process of learning to cope with and manage these unpleasant feelings, children learn valuable self-regulation skills. Through the process of repairing these disconnections, children and parents learn more about their emotions, how to manage them, and how to offer forgiveness and move forward in the relationship.2 All these skills are crucial to a child’s development and help them learn how to participate in relationships throughout life.
Of course, this is not to say that we should yell at our children frequently or use yelling as a mainstay of our discipline strategy. What the science of rupture and repair implies is that we humans are not perfect and that mistakes happen. It seems that this fact is indeed built into our psychology, and children are equipped to be adaptable and learn from these situations.
Tips for Moving Forward
Understanding that ruptures in our relationships with our children are normal doesn’t necessarily make them any easier to handle. When these disconnections happen, many times a lot of big emotions are at play. We may feel guilty or ashamed, and our children may feel sad or resentful. How do we move forward? Only through the emotional labor of forgiveness and repair can we move our relationship back on track. Without repair, the small ruptures can accumulate over time and ultimately damage our relationship.
Awareness: As in any relationship, the first step in repairing a parent–child disconnection is to be aware of the breakdown and why it happened. This often requires a bit of self-awareness on our part. Since we are the adults with more life experience and maturity, it falls to us to analyze the situation. Why did the yelling or disconnection occur? Were we being too reactive or seeing our child’s behavior through a lens of negativity? Was our child’s behavior simply a sign of an unmet need or skill that they have not yet mastered? By being both self-aware and trying to understand our children’s emotions, we can begin the process of repairing the relationship.
Openness to Repair: Although the parenting role places us in a position of authority, this doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes at times. In moments of rupture in our relationship with our children, being open to the opportunity to repair the connection is key. Sometimes being open to repair may feel like we no longer hold authority, but in reality, it models helpful relationship skills for our children. Being open to repair might mean that we need to apologize to our children in some situations.1 In others, it might mean that we are open to forgiving our children. Either way, maintaining a posture of openness can be useful in this process.
Reconnect: One of the most crucial aspects of the repair process is how we reconnect with our children following the yelling incident. Once we have opened the door to hearing our children’s feelings and apologizing if needed, reconnecting with our children can begin. Depending on our child’s age, reconnecting can be as simple as playing a game together, reading a book, hugging, or making a snack together. These simple activities can often be enough to change the mood and set the relationship back on track in a positive direction.
While moments of disconnection or strife with our children may not be the high point of a parenting journey, these experiences can be an important piece of the developmental process for our children. Through experiencing first-hand the process of rupture and repair, our children learn that conflict in relationships is not abnormal and that it doesn’t have to be catastrophic. Instead, they learn from us about how to apologize, reconnect, and move forward past the conflict.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Divecha, D. (2020). Rifts and Repairs in the Fabric of Family Life. Developmental Science. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2020/8/12/rifts-and-repairs-in-the-fabric-of-family-life
- Hunsley, J. (n.d.). The Power of Repair: Strengthening Relationships in Times of Crisis. Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. Retrieved July 19, 2022, from https://child.tcu.edu/blog-repair/#sthash.i0PLGV01.IGv8zbzn.dpbs