Imagine this scene:
After telling your kids to sit down for the fifteenth time, you hear yourself screaming at them.
Then, they start to complain loudly about the food, and you threaten to send them to bed without dinner.
There’s no question that our kids can trigger us into reacting in regrettable ways (especially at dinner!), and once we calm down, most of us feel pretty badly about our overreactions.
We don’t have to beat ourselves up, though.
The real problem is not our mistake, but forgetting to do a “repair” with our child.
A repair is a more in-depth apology; it’s not a simple “I’m sorry”.
It’s a conversation that communicates to our kids that they may have done something that we didn’t like. Something that needed a time-out or a consequence. But, something to which we wish we had responded to in a calmer way.
A repair is extraordinarily healing and empowering to children. It makes children trust parents deeply, removes blame that didn’t belong to the child and teaches kids that adults are not perfect (and kids don’t have to be either).
Knowing how to do a repair will keep you from going into a shame spiral (because that won’t help anyone – trust me, I know), and instead mend the hurt and build a stronger bond between you and your child.
Here are 5 steps that I recommend for making repairs that can heal our kids’ hearts and bring peace back to the dinner table. Feel free to change the wording so that it feels organic to you.
# 1: Calm yourself down first.
Nothing will make matters worse that trying to talk to your child when you still have emotional feelings about what they did to cause your trigger. Even if you have created some space and have more awareness that your reaction was inappropriate, you still need to wait until the tension is gone. This can be hard for good parents because they want to make things better right away. But, you will be more effective once you are completely grounded.
# 2: Approach your child without eye contact.
Wait until you are tucking your child into bed at night with the lights out, taking a walk outside, or even in the car the next morning. Emotions can be very scary to kids, especially when their feelings have been hurt. Talking to them without eye contact gives them the emotional space to engage or simply listen.
What to say: “I feel really badly about about what happened before and I want to apologize.”
# 3: Make a specific apology.
Simply stopping at, “I’m sorry” doesn’t communicate to a child that we really understand the impact of our actions. That’s why we need to be specific.
What to say: “I’m really sorry that I …”
- Yelled at you for _ (whining, not sitting down, not trying my new recipe, etc.)
- Forced you to eat something you didn’t want.
- Took away your food before you were done eating.
- Made you feel badly for eating a cookie.
- Threatened to send you to bed hungry.
# 4: Give your child an opportunity to express his/her feelings.
Some kids are comfortable using words, crayons or dolls to express themselves, while other kids won’t want to express their feelings at all. Don’t force them. Simply giving them an opportunity to do so now – or later – is the most important thing.
What to say: “I can image that that didn’t feel very good. Is there something you’d like to say to me?” Then, wait and let them respond and talk about their feelings.
# 5: Paint a brighter future.
After making a specific apology, it is important to let our kids know in concrete terms how it will be different next time. This helps them feel safe and builds more trust in you.
What to say: “Instead of yelling, I wished that I told you in a calm voice that you had to sit down at the table for 5 minutes and then if you still weren’t hungry, you were free to get up and clear your plate. I will try hard to do that next time.”
Putting it all together
Here’s how a full repair might look.
“I feel really badly about what happened earlier, and I want you to know that I’m really sorry for yelling at you for not sitting down. That must have felt pretty badly. Is there anything you want to say to me? [PAUSE] If this happens again, my plan is to try to stay calm and simply let you know that our family rule is that we all sit down for dinner together. If you are still not hungry after 5 minutes, then you could get up and clear your plate. Would you like to do a ‘do-over’?”
I hope these steps are helpful the next time you are looking for a way to reconnect with your child after overreacting to a trigger.
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