As we start the closing chapter of the book (to borrow Churchill’s phrase, “the end of the beginning”),1 we remind parents that we are advocating “good enough parenting”, not perfect parenting. No one is perfect; we will all need to repair and reconnect at some point. Parents will sometimes feel frustrated when their children act out even after many reminders; moms and dads will rightfully take issue with their children for talking back, mistreating others, lying, overspending, not taking schoolwork seriously, staying up too late, and the list goes on. Even when trying really hard to be good enough parents, moms and dads will occasionally become frustrated and slip into exasperation interaction mode and stay there for a while . . . when this happens, the parent-child connection will be damaged and repair will be needed. If you find yourself at this stage, or if things are worse and there has been no connection for a while, and you have already read the rest of this book, then you are ready for this chapter, called “Repair and Reconnect”.
Don’t be deceived by the philosophy of “let’s just cool down” or “let’s forget the whole episode”; it is doubtful that things will get back to normal by accident or that you will experience connection after some time has passed. When heated arguments take place, with unhelpful words being spoken by one or both parties, the result is hurt feelings that need to be dealt with. If the relationship is repaired quickly, all will be forgotten—by nature, children are resilient and forgiving. If these hurts are not processed well, however, children or parents (or both) will ruminate, replaying the hurtful words over and over, and getting increasingly negative. When we ruminate, our thoughts get distorted and our pain gets worse, causing us to lose concentration. We could be driving, doing something for our boss at work, or even speaking with someone, but our mind will be preoccupied with the unresolved issue. How many times have we heard parents say, “If only I had talked with my child earlier, I would have spared him/her/the family a lot of pain and suffering.”
Repair and reconnection are important skills for parents to learn. If children do not get reconnected with their parents quickly, they can feel abandoned, alone, unloved or misunderstood. Young children especially look at hurts and pain differently than adults. For example, the parent may feel angry, but the child may feel humiliated and shamed, or a child may feel hopeless, while parents may feel that things will get better. These emotions, if felt repeatedly, lead to exasperation and discouragement, which affects not only the way the child feels about the parent but also the child’s physical and mental health. It is in the interest of every parent to know how to effectively repair the relationship with his child. Repairing and reconnecting will bring the relationship between the parent and child to a new level of intimacy.
If connection was good before the disruption, both sides will usually want to come back to the state of connection again; however, if the practice of one or both parties was to deny any hurtful feelings, and to simply avoid, reconnecting will be more difficult. Here’s a rule of thumb—the longer you’ve gone without connection, the longer repair and reconnection will take. Still, it is never too late.
The process of getting reconnected involves both parent and child being vulnerable. The child will have to be old enough to talk about her feelings to be able to understand and do this effectively. If need be, the other parent or a safe adult can help to coach the child. Before describing how to be vulnerable, let us spend some time explaining this concept even further.
Healing Comes from Being Vulnerable
When we are vulnerable, we allow ourselves to be known in an intimate way. We move toward healing as we vulnerably discuss our lifetraps, our coping styles, and their origins. We are assuming most of you feel safe enough to do this with at least one person—ideally with your spouse; alternatively, find someone else to talk to with whom you can feel safe. When we get to this point, we may discover a deep inner feeling of hurt, disappointment or fear, which we did not realize was there. When this happens, we are getting into the deep recesses of our soul. This is what experts call the “child side”. This doesn’t mean acting “childish”, rather it is the side of us that is transparent with what we feel and need. (Children let you know when they are hungry, when they’re scared, etc., without feeling embarrassed.)
Dr. Alice Miller, Dr. Donald Winnicott, and Dr. Emmet Fox, early experts in the field of child development, taught that we should experience the child side of ourselves, or our true self.2 Dr. Charles Whitfield defines the child side as “who we are when we feel most authentic, genuine or spirited.”3
Our child side experiences the feelings of joy and pain. It wants and needs to express these feelings without fear or judgment. This child side is who we truly are. It is the side that expresses what we need, when we are weak, when we are happy and contented, when we are sad, and when we are afraid. It is the side that cries at happy endings, the side that gets romantically soppy during the infatuation stage, the side that says, “I’m afraid”, “I’m lonely”, “I’m happy”, and so forth. As adults we do not completely lose our child side; we only become good at hiding it.
When children experience unhealthy guilt or shame or fear at a young age, they are usually at a loss, and don’t know how to cope with these emotions. Sadly, the people who induce such feelings are often the parents. As a result, these children, whose core emotional needs are probably not being met, develop a false sense of who they are. After all, children rely on their parents to meet their core needs. When they don’t feel loved and accepted by their parents, or when the messages they receive are negative, they are powerless to know that these messages are false. When the negative messages get repeated over and over, the children believe them. When children accept these repeated distorted messages as the truth about themselves, lifetraps develop. In order to manage the pain and fear the lifetraps cause, children develop a false front in the form of unhealthy coping styles that hide their real needs and desires. They grow into adults who so habitually use their coping style, they no longer know they are shutting themselves off from their innermost thoughts and feelings. Eventually, with repetition, the child side gets completely hidden and comes out only intermittenly, and the false side has now become a very natural part of their makeup and personality.
The more these adults rely on their coping styles, the less they are in touch with their child side. Moreover, the adult vocabulary is more extensive so, subconsciously, they know what to say to deter others from getting to their child side. The child side is not nurtured; the false unhealthy coping style takes over. This coping style is not the true inner self. The goal is to bring out the child side, which is genuine, sincere and teachable. It takes humility to expose the child side. When it does come out, that is being “vulnerable”. Believing the false truths from lifetraps and masking the real self with coping styles only prolongs the pain and keeps people from healing. For example, when a parent loses his temper and quarrels with his child, he might act tough rather than be vulnerable. He might pretend that he does not need anyone and that he is fine, which is the avoidance coping style. He might cope by being busy, but in doing so would be keeping himself detached from his true child side. The coping style of avoidance may even put him on the path of addiction or being a workaholic. Whatever it is, it will prevent him from being in touch with his real self. When feelings of guilt or shame arise, he may overcompensate or counterattack in order to protect himself. Since he is not being vulnerable, the child side is hidden; a false angry side comes out instead by way of the overcompensation coping style. Then there are those who surrender because they hear a critical parent voice and give in, thinking that everything is their fault. While this may not lead to a volatile quarrel, they are still not being vulnerable, so the child side stays tucked away. Whatever the coping style, when parents respond to triggers by hiding their inner selves/child side, they will eventually become accustomed to the façade.
Speaking from personal experience, when we start being vulnerable, we will suddenly feel confusion, fear, excitement, sadness and even anger. When this happens, it is actually good news. However, many people will give up at this point because they feel awkward and hurt. It is easier to stay in touch with their old, false self and the coping style to which they have been accustomed for so long. They would rather stay with the familiar than move towards what’s healthier.
As we practice being vulnerable, we should not let the awkward feelings dissuade us from pressing on. It is such a wonderful place to be, but it takes humility and courage. We may need to have a “do over” now and again, but with each attempt, we will get closer and closer to being healed. When we say “being healed”, we mean getting healed emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and as a result, attaining a sense of peace. The alternative is holding in our unhealthy feelings until they become unbearable. Our feelings have a way of coming out, whether we like it or not through our unhealthy coping styles. This may lead to all sorts of self-destructive behavior, including dependence on alcohol, smoking, over-eating, sexual promiscuity, or through counterattacking others, which damages relationships around us. While this is happening, we may numbly go about our routine.
Men are notorious for frowning at the thought of being vulnerable with anyone, let alone their children. They laugh at the idea of sharing emotions, but truthfully, it is their avoidant side that is reacting. Little do they realize that suppressed feelings lead to stress and illness; they end up experiencing less personal growth, and miss out on the benefits of getting in touch with their child side. As comfortable as we may be with our false self (coping style), our false self cannot help us get healed. Only the child side, the true self, can take us to a healthier place. So, let us get our child side out and be vulnerable! Whitfield says that most of us expose our child side for only about 15 minutes a day!4 Whether with our spouse, or children, or with other safe friends, it is time to get started.
We should be patient with each other and help each other go through this process. This is what love for each other is all about: making the effort to help ourselves and others change. As Dr. M. Scott Peck defines love in his book The Road Less Travelled, “[Love is] the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”5
How To Be Vulnerable
When it comes to communicating in a vulnerable way, we like to think of being vulnerable as having four components:
• Weakness – Usually related to your unhealthy coping styles or lifetraps
• Feelings – What you are feeling but not in an accusing way, such as fears, worries, pain
• Needs – Core emotional needs for children and other needs and expectations for parents
• Apologizing if necessary – Taking responsibility, stating how you got triggered, how you responded in an inappropriate manner, if this was indeed the case, and apologizing for it.
Being vulnerable with each other helps a parent to know what the child is feeling when he says, “Mom, I am really angry at you for saying this”, or “Dad, you just don’t understand what I am thinking and feeling”, or, “I don’t agree with you”. These are all common statements and with vulnerability something very powerful takes place— both the parent and the child will be able to truly understand and connect, which of course will greatly improve the parent-child relationship. There is something about exposing our weaknesses, feeling understood and voicing out our needs that draws us closer to one another. Usually these messages are hidden deep within us, and what comes out is our coping style, which is not helpful, and often leads us into the vortex of conflict escalation. Instead, when we are vulnerable, our hidden child side comes out, and healing takes place at an emotional level, which can be very powerful for reconciliation and connection.
Parents must learn how to put their finger on the emotions behind the coping styles (or identify how the child side is feeling), and that is what being vulnerable is all about—bringing our child side out into the open.
At www.gep.sg, we have presented different scenarios between a parent and an adolescent, and there are exercises on how both parties can practice being vulnerable. Bear in mind that after the child has been vulnerable, a lecture should not take place. What better way to shut down anyone’s child side? Remember, the listening party should validate the other’s feelings, summarize them back, identifying all the emotions of the other person, and say them back in a gentle tone—not lecturing (see Chapter Seven on Empathy).
Follow the steps outlined on how to validate and listen to your children. If the listening party disagrees with anything stated, this should also come from a vulnerable point of view. In this way both sides are entering into a state where they are attempting to understand and know each other’s weaknesses and needs.
In all the examples on our website, we treat the components of being vulnerable separately. Please take time to do these exercises; the four components are essential and need to be memorized.
Principles to Consider
When an argument ensues, do you as a parent take the time to reflect and gain awareness of your own issues? The following are some questions you can ask:
• What triggered me? Parents need to gain awareness of their own issues.
• Why did this trigger me? Did I get angry because my own agenda was not met, or did I get angry because I really want what is best for my child?
• Was there a sudden change in rules? If parents have been allowing children to get away with things and all of a sudden come to the realization that their kids need healthy limits, they must discuss the changes. If parents make changes abruptly, it may cause a huge reaction on the part of the children and inevitably result in a fight. Parents might try saying “Honey we realize that we have made mistakes in our parenting. We need to take responsibility for that. This part is not your fault. We have a new awareness of ourselves as parents. Especially after seeing this pattern in your behavior, we would like to discuss with you some changes that we are going to implement. We know this is not going to be easy for you, and it is also not easy for us, but we have talked about it and we want to go over it with you.” Then implement the boundaries, and this time stick to your convictions. When your children see your new stance, they will eventually come to respect it though initially they may be upset.
• Did I listen to my child empathically or did I jump to conclusions and start making judgments?
• Discuss with the other parent, if he or she was not involved in the argument. Ask them objectively and let them give you their feedback. Avoid turning this interaction into another fight, as this can make resolving the other previous one with the child even more difficult. Be vulnerable with each other.
• After reflecting on the above, be calm and be ready to be vulnerable with the child. When children are young, parents especially need to initiate. Children process tension in a very negative way and this can be detrimental to their mental health over the long haul if issues are not resolved quickly.
• Usually, if resolving conflicts quickly is a habit in the family then as the children get older they will also initiate to resolve issues. This is a good sign. If parents are still initiating this with adolescents, then this can also be an issue that parents bring up with the child, but do so after the argument is resolved. Both sides need to be in the practice of initiating. There should not be such an imbalance that only one side initiates most of the time.
Understanding forgiveness and knowing how to extend it to each other is a crucial component of a healthy family. Yet we have noticed how little emphasis forgiveness is given in major approaches to therapy. Experts and writers come up with all kinds of attending, assessment and intervention skills, but only in rare cases is forgiveness given the attention it deserves. We strongly believe that unless it is properly understood and rendered, the possibility of relapse will be high and families will not grow and change as part of their journey together. It is no doubt difficult, but it is still essential. When we forgive, all the bitterness, resentment, and anger are swept away. The negative emotional energy is gone and is replaced by feelings of light-heartedness, freedom, and peace. Indeed, forgiveness is the cornerstone for healing in our family relationships.
For more help on repairing and reconnecting, please review the teaching on forgiveness in the discussion of shaping our children’s values (see Chapter Nineteen). And make sure you review the huge section on meeting the core emotional need of connection and acceptance one more time (see Chapters Four to Seven).