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How To ‘Repair’ A Frayed Relationship With Your Child When Parenting

by Anna Cole

Our summer issue is out now. Regular contributor and parenting expert Anna Cole teaches us how to navigate the ‘rupture and repair’ cycle that plays out in all relationships so that we can better understand ourselves and our children. Keep reading to learn more…

How To ‘Repair’ A Frayed Relationship With Your Child When Parenting

Understanding The Rupture And Repair Cycle

by Anna Cole

“The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.”

Esther Perel

Here’s the thing about parenting. Few of us understood that having children would be this wonderful and this difficult. As Patty Wiplfer and Tosha Shore, authors of the book Listen, put it: “Parenting is intimate, night and day work that starts off with a three year long ‘intensive care period’ and beyond that stretches at least 15 more years of dedication, guidance, research, advocacy, diplomacy, night work, cleaning, cooking, coaching, tutoring, transportation, first aid, and more. Above all you are called upon to model caring and compassion in matters large and small day after day at a moment’s notice” (Listen, 2016). Above all else, parenting demands of us that we become more relational, more adept at the constant ‘rupture and repair’ cycle of being in relationship with another unique, exquisite, frustrating, challenging, growing human being. Contemporary research in interpersonal neurobiology shows us that rupture and repair are the central nub of relationships that work well and last the test of time. Psychologist Laurence Cohen explains that we humans aren’t designed to be in
constant good connection with other human beings. We wish it could be like that, but in fact, we have what is known as a ‘rupture and repair’ cycle. To build loving relationships as a parent or otherwise, the place to focus is on the repair side of this cycle.

And here’s something else no one tells you: having children will uncover all your hidden triggers inside, and you’ll find yourself saying and doing things you swore blind you never would, bringing much rupture when you wish you could repair. When you are stressed, things will pop out of your mouth that sound just like what your parents said to you when they were stressed, or you will want to do what was done to you. But you won’t know this until you ‘flip your lid’ and are in the heat of the moment. And once you are a parent, there will be many, many such heated moments.

You can’t avoid the emotional or relational work of parenting, and no matter how many deep breaths you take in a day, you may start itching to show someone how you really feel. Parenting can wear us down to the nub at any level of economic privilege.

Doing emotional work as a parent – finding a way to offload stress, get focused back on repair, and lower the walls with the other adults in our lives we’ve thrown up to protect ourselves – is not yet a common concept. When we’re swept up in feelings and have no emotional support, we lose our compass, we don’t feel good, we do things we regret, and we feel too isolated and ashamed to tell anyone how hard we are struggling.

Some welcome news: There are good and simple ways to handle the emotional rigour of parenting and get back to ‘repair’ in your relationships, and at Hand in Hand, we teach five of them – five listening tools that can help you when you have lost it and are at sea in the storms of relating. When you use the Listening tools, you will start to build your emotional stamina and build your own support system. Instead of spending lots of time trying to control your child’s behaviour, you can focus on building connection with your child and on that all-important repair so that you can rebuild family relationships when they fray. Here’s Patty Wipfler again, founder of the international non-profit Hand in Hand that helps with this rupture and repair cycle: “Your parenting road won’t be free of potholes and hairpin bends, but you will have a clearer perspective, the beginnings of a support network, and the opportunity to work with, rather than against, the emotional work of parenting”. So how can we come back to repairing rather than rupturing when we feel triggered by our child? Here’s one of our repair tools at Hand in Hand. It’s called ‘Listening Time’ or ‘Listening Partnerships’ for parents.

Here’s How it Can Work:

“My daughter had started using the phrase, “It’s not fair!” quite a lot at home. Each time she said it I felt triggered. I found myself either ranting at her or clamming up and ignoring her complaints. I was the middle child in my family, and I remember the “It’s not fair!” feeling well. I knew that I needed some listening time on this so I could work through my own feelings. I knew that this would help me be able to think and act more clearly to help my daughter.

I set up a Listening Partnership and began by talking about how hard it is for me when I hear my daughter say, “It’s not fair!” As I spoke, my Listening Partner asked me what I had needed to hear when I was a child. I began to cry as heaviness came over me, and I said, “I just want to be heard. I just want someone to say, “Yeah, it can feel unfair sometimes. I’m sorry you are feeling bad.” My Listening Partner then said these words to me with such compassion and warmth that my tears kept falling. I felt decades worth of feelings dissolve as I soaked in those words I had been longing to hear.

The next time my daughter expressed her feelings about things being so unfair, I was able to listen to her with warmth and compassion, and she responded so well to me. I was able to think and act more freely, as my own “stuff” was now out of the way. I love the clarity and ability to remain present that my Listening Partnerships allow me.”

There’s nothing like a Listening Partnership out there! It’s the parent support tool that helps us bring our best selves to our children and each other, day in and day out.


Anna Cole, PhD, is Community and Research Lead for Hand in Hand in the UK and Ireland. Hand in Hand is an international non-profit that works to bring attachment based, trauma-responsive connection tools to parents. Find us at handinhandparenting.org or contact anna@handinhandparenting.org

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