Learning how to repair the connection and re-build trust after conflicts with your child is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to the relationship.
As you learn to repair conflicts well, your child will live in an emotionally safer and more peaceful world. When repair happens after conflict, conflict in the family becomes much less scary and threatening for parent and child. As the parent and child both feel more confident that the trust and connection will be restored, they can both feel more secure and less reactive when differences appear, and highly charged defensiveness begins to slowly but surely dissipate.
Conflicts that happen as a result of differences of wants and needs are normal in close relationships. Most of these conflicts can also be easily avoided when parents learn to deal with these situations in a way that truly honours and respects everyone’s thoughts, feelings and needs and aims to work with all these factors in a constructive manner. Differences represent the diversity and individuality of family members and overall need to be respected rather than discouraged. As parents we have a greater capacity to deal with differences when we’re equipped with the skills to (a) manage our own strong emotions that arise and (b) maintain calm, open communication that respects all voices when the differences threaten to breakdown the connection.
A parent and child can experience several conflicts a day and there are times when all parents become overly stressed, impatient and annoyed towards their child. In situations where the parent’s anger explodes and they vent their anger at their child, this can be highly distressing for children. They can feel attacked, insecure, sad, overwhelmed, trapped and confused. They will likely be very nervous about future differences until trust has been restored. When a parent vents their anger at their child, the child will likely feel the full force of that anger and it will definitely need a lot of conscious repairing. When this happens, it’s often quite the shock for the child AND the parent. Both the child and the parent can feel lost and struggle to reconnect. If not repaired, the child may unconsciously develop defense mechanisms that help them cope. Yet they pay a high price for in other areas of their life, perhaps they will be more reserved about opening up to their parent, perhaps they will feel generally more stressed and frustrated, perhaps their learning and ability to relate patiently in relationships in general or perhaps their self-esteem will be impacted.
For more detailed support in learning to avoid exploding in anger, many parents find our Overcoming Overwhelm eCourse (previously called Mama Meltdown) to be very helpful. Also helpful are this teleseminar audio with Genevieve and Patty Wipfler Why We Explode and How to Prevent it and also Genevieve’s Stress Relief for Parents CD tracks.
The extent that the child is impacted depends on whether they can find their voice during the conflict and whether they have the chance to express themselves honestly and gain some resolution afterwards. But even smaller conflicts and misunderstandings may need repairing. There are many ways to re-connect, many ways to convey remorse, when the intention is there, repair will happen. It doesn’t always need to be talked through, warm connection, creating space to spend some quality time doing what they enjoy, warm affection, play and humour can all rebuild the connection. Yet many conflicts give the child messages about themselves, messages about how you see them, messages about the relationship that needs to be repaired so they are not left internalizing these harmful beliefs. For instance, if the parent accused the child of being selfish, inconsiderate, lazy, weak, needy, difficult, aggressive, or any other labels, then this will need to be addressed. And even if specific labelling words have not been spoken, these messages may have been conveyed through sarcasm, or stonewalling, or just through body language, and will need to be repaired.
The benefits of regularly revisiting and resolving conflicts.
When restoring peace after conflicts is regularly practiced in the family, a child develops trust and communication skills that they can draw on during future challenges.
The child grows to trust that;
(a) genuine repair is possible again this time,
(b) they will be heard and acknowledged,
(c) they have a right to express the feelings caused by the conflict,
(d) they have a right to disagree, resist, negotiate or rebel,
(e) misunderstandings will be cleared up,
(f) differences are viewed as opportunities to learn more about each other and deepen the connection,
(g) the warm connection of the relationship is always valued and fostered and
(h) their parent always remembers and comes back to believing in them, in seeing their goodness.
Every time you repair a conflict you’ve had with your child, you’re teaching him/her about repair; firstly that it’s possible and secondly what it looks, sounds and feels like. Children are endlessly forgiving – for the first 12 years or so at least! Even as teenagers, they can tell when their parents remorse and intentions to repair the connection are genuine and non-manipulative.
Saying sorry before you feel sorry. If you say sorry when you’re still upset at them, it can be confusing because they can still feel your frustration and will naturally assume that you still have blaming feelings towards them, when the frustration is more likely to be frustration at yourself for losing it. To avoid giving your child conflicting messages, you can say something like; “I really am sorry that I shouted at you, I lost my temper and I know I still need to calm down, I’m starting to calm down”, this will show your child that you’ve stopped blaming them and the danger of escalation is probably over. This is also modelling honest authentic expression of feelings.
I’m sorry BUT … Try and refrain from the “but” at the end, e.g. “I’m sorry I shouted at you BUT I didn’t know what else to do because you wouldn’t listen to me and you … and when you … “. Your child will feel blamed and threatened again, but will feel the pressure to “forgive you” because you’re saying sorry. It’s very hard for them to deal with contradictory messages like these.
But I am still angry at my child. If you haven’t reached the feeling of wanting to repair yet, find another way to offload the hurt and resentment and aim to make your way back to genuine peace with your child. Our feelings follow our intentions. It’s okay that you’re upset, you’re entitled to your feelings. How can you release the emotional charge in a healthy way? Every parent needs a readily accessible toolkit with various options for constructively re-balancing their emotions (self-regulation). Developing self regulation skills strengthens you as a parent, resolves past hurts and equips parents with tools to share with their children to help them with their feelings; some ideas are breathing, affirmations, meditation, writing, crying, a friend to ring, certain music, dancing, drawing, being in nature. What brings you back to your heart?
Honor your child’s apology. Your child’s attempts to repair and express remorse need to be honoured and respected. When a child says sorry for what they’ve done and their parent responds with “well there’s no point in saying sorry if you’re going to do that again” or “sorry is an easy word to say but … “, or “if you’re really sorry, then let me see you …. “. All these kinds of responses minimize, diminish and shame the child’s attempt to repair the relationship.
When your child’s “sorry” is not sincere. If your child says “Sorry!!!” with an angry tone, they are showing you that they still have upset feelings that they need help processing. Or they may be saying sorry because they feel under pressure to express remorse before they’re ready. The parent can say “I can hear that you’re still upset, you don’t have to say sorry if you’re still upset – I can help, we’ll work this out together” or “what do you need to come back to peace?”.
When your child isn’t sorry. Adults tend to put too much focus on making the child apologise for their wrongs. But more importantly, we adults need to model having the humility to admit our wrongs and take responsibility for the hurt we’ve caused to the other (be it our child or partner). Instead of pushing the child to apologise, we can help them feel and express the feelings that are keeping them locked in feeling and acting resentfully. When the child get helps with their feelings and they feel understood, it’s much easier for them to reach the place of genuinely FEELING remorseful. Adults and children alike have the right to work through their feelings and work through misunderstandings before they can genuinely feel remorseful. It may not be possible for your child to reach a place of being able to even see or understand how their actions impacted others until they themselves feel understood. Put more focus on admitting your wrongs and resolving the warm connection, and trust that this groundwork will lead to the work of helping your child take ownership of any hurts they have caused to another. While helping them maintain their dignity and avoiding shame.
Give your child the space and support they need to show you their hurt feelings. Listen to how it made them feel: Probably the most important aspect of repairing with your child is to give your child the explicit permission to show you how the conflict affected them. If a parent says “I’m sorry I shouted at you, I love you very much, let’s have a hug and make up”, the child has no safe place to show, to share, to release, to process the difficult feelings that the conflict brought up for them. When you get angry at your child, it will hurt, it will make them angry. That’s okay, that’s normal and understandable. Instead, you can say something like; “I’m really sorry sweetheart, I lost my temper and I shouted at you and that must have been really really hard for you, I can imagine you might have felt scared or trapped, you probably felt like shouting back at me, that was too hard honey, tell me or show me what that was like for you”.
Problem solving can only happen when the connection has been restored. Truly listening and helping your child with their big feelings will allow them to come back to a place of peace with themselves and with you. When the warm connection has been restored between parent and child, talking about what might have worked better or what could work better another time is much easier and more constructive. Follow your child’s lead, if thinking about what happened or needs to happen seems too much for them (usually communicated by their defensive reaction), this is a sure sign that they’re still operating from highly charged emotions and are not yet ready to operate from their logical thinking. It may mean that more resolution is needed or that you need to let it drop for now, and trust that helping them feel safer and more secure, helping them feel liked, seen, heard, loved and believed in is more important than creating a plan of action for the future right now. One step at a time.
You’re building your child’s resilience to conflicts out in the world. When conflicts are repaired at home, children are much less threatened by conflicts with others in general. Because the child has been empowered to be an active participant in resolving conflicts at home, these skills lessen feelings of powerlessness, fear and defensiveness when conflicts arise in general. When children are equipped with healthy conflict resolution skills and have seen healthy conflict resolution modelled a lot in the family, this generally results in them being much better at both taking responsibility for their words or actions that negatively impact others, as well as being better able to assert and hold boundaries. Healthy conflict resolution skills children to become teenagers then adults who will be less defensive and more honest, more assertive, more authentic and to own and take responsibility for their mistakes where appropriate. Children who are experienced in conflict resolution are better at staying centred and respectful in challenging interactions, are not afraid to speak up for themselves or others when appropriate and tend to become the peacemakers.
Skills for Life. Children whose parents repair conflicts in a healthy way will have easy access to these same skills in conflicts with others outside the family as children, then as adolescents and adults.
Parents need more support like this these days. To take the time knowing our parenting experience is all about self development. I love working with parents helping them see anything I possible with the right mind set.
Loved your article !!
Peace with you always
We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community.
Your website offered us with valuable info tto work on. You’ve
done an impressive job and our whole community will be
thankful to you.
Noella, so glad that the information is helpful to your community!
Noella I hope your community has continued to grow. And hopefully my articles have continued to be helpful. Be sure to sign up to receive my newsletters/ new articles/ courses.
This is an excellent article, thank you! Insightful and helpful.
I have just found and shared your encouraging website on my page. So happy I googled ‘handling conflict with children peacefully’
Lelia, I’m so glad you found it helpful, and thank you for sharing on 🙂
Good solid approach with clear guidelines on how to adopt and model a growth mindset for the next generation. This is especially helpful coaching for those parents who’s own parents might have lacked, or still lack, conflict resolutions skills. I think what’s most important though is that all parents be reminded that once they become parents themselves it is no longer about what skills they did not learn in childhood or about how lousy their own parents may still, or always be at resolving conflicts, but about what they wish to pass on to their children. The principles of positive parenting and the modeling of peaceful conflict resolution skills can only be as effective as a parent is at illustrating the application of those principles in the wider sphere of interpersonal relationships. If for instance a child is estranged from their grandparents due to an unresolved family conflict, modeling peaceful parenting at home without applying those principles backwards is unlikely to result in much more than an introduction to a very conflicting model. Because ultimately our children will end up learning as much about how to treat us by the way we treat our parents, as they will by the way we treat them.
a very helpful article about conflicts of a parent and child regardless of the child’s age. I am a 34yr. old Mother and daughter. My mom and I are close but when conflicts come, we are as cold as ice cube to each other. I think one thing I learn whenever we fight is that Mothers are not perfect. They also make mistakes but it’s very hard for mothers to say Sorry to their child. That’s why whenever me and my 4yr. old daughter made
a tiny argument and may upset her, I always make sure that I apologize to her when we’re both calm. It makes me feel that I am a better mother. 🙂 🙂
Yes that simple, but difficult, act of apologizing is so powerful and teaches children that they also can have the humility to admit their regrets and mistakes. So many of us grew up with the kind of dynamic you describe with your mother, and it really breeds so much perfectionism and shame. It’s sad that the resolution is so difficult with your mother and sad for her that she never learned that it’s ok to be imperfect and that in fact saying sorry is a huge strength. But so great that you’ve broken the cycle with your daughter, which I’m sure will really help to keep the lines of communication open between you as the years go on.
I found this helpful in terms of setting context for repair, and some tips for reducing damage (less repair after). However, it would be great to have more actual repair recommendations. Giving a child space to express their feelings is a good one, thank you. Can you point to other resources for some more specific ideas? With the pandemic and being inside totally on top of each other (single momming am 8 year old singleton), I’ve seen our relationship intensify in every way. It’s challenging and I’m looking for real, substantial advice for repair after this time of grumpy and sometimes anger-ridden confinement. Thank you.