Family Conflict Is Normal; It’s the Repair That Matters

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Three months into the pandemic, I had the urge to see my 28-year-old daughter and her husband, 2,000 miles away. She had weathered an acute health crisis, followed by community protests that propelled them both onto the streets to serve food and clean up neighborhoods. They were coping, but the accumulation of challenges made the mom in me want to connect with and support them. So, together with my husband, my other daughter, and her husband, our family of six adults and two dogs formed a new pod inside my daughter’s home in the steamy heat of the Minneapolis summer.

As I packed, a wisp of doubt crept in. We six hadn’t lived together under the same roof, ever. Would I blow it? Would I “flap my lips,” as a friend calls it, and accidentally say something hurtful? Some time back, in a careless moment of exhaustion, I had insulted my brand-new son-in-law with a thoughtless remark. He was rightfully hurt, and it took a long letter and a phone call to get us back on track.

My own siblings and I were raised inside the intractable rupture that was my parents’ marriage. Their lifelong conflict sowed discord and division in everyone around them. I worked hard to create a different, positive family climate with my husband and our children. My old ghosts were haunting me, though, and I didn’t want to ruin a good thing. 

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Yet research shows that it’s not realistic, or possible, or even healthy to expect that our relationships will be harmonious all the time. Everything we know from developmental science and research on families suggests that rifts will happen—and what matters more is how you respond to them. With many families spending more time together than ever now, there are ample opportunities for tension and hurt feelings. These moments also offer ample invitations to reconnect.

Disconnections are a fact of life

Researcher Ed Tronick, together with colleague Andrew Gianino, calculated how often infants and caregivers are attuned to each other. (Attunement is a back-and-forth rhythm of interaction where partners share positive emotions.) They found that it’s surprisingly little. Even in healthy, securely attached relationships, caregivers and babies are in sync only 30% of the time. The other 70%, they’re mismatched, out of synch, or making repairs and coming back together. Cheeringly, even babies work toward repairs with their gazes, smiles, gestures, protests, and calls.

These mismatches and repairs are critical, Tronick explains. They’re important for growing children’s self-regulation, coping, and resilience. It is through these mismatches—in small, manageable doses—that babies, and later children, learn that the world does not track them perfectly. These small exposures to the micro-stress of unpleasant feelings, followed by the pleasant feelings that accompany repair, or coming back together, are what give them manageable practice in keeping their boat afloat when the waters are choppy. Put another way, if a caregiver met all of their child’s needs perfectly, it would actually get in the way of the child’s development.

“Repairing ruptures is the most essential thing in parenting,” says UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, director of the Mindsight Institute and author of several books on interpersonal neurobiology.

Life is a series of mismatches, miscommunications, and misattunements that are quickly repaired, says Tronick, and then again become miscoordinated and stressful, and again are repaired. This occurs thousands of times in a day, and millions of times over a year.

Other research shows that children have more conflicts and repairs with friends than non-friends. Sibling conflict is legendary; and adults’ conflicts escalate when they become parents. If interpersonal conflict is unavoidable—and even necessary—then the only way we can maintain important relationships is to get better at re-synchronizing them, and especially at tending to repairs when they rupture.

“Relationships shrink to the size of the field of repair,” says Rick Hanson, psychologist and author of several books on the neuroscience of well-being. “But a bid for a repair is one of the sweetest and most vulnerable and important kinds of communication that humans offer to each other,” he adds. “It says you value the relationship.”

Strengthening the family fabric

In a small Canadian study, researchers examined how parents of four- to seven-year-old children strengthened, harmed, or repaired their relationships with their children. Parents said their relationships with their children were strengthened by “horizontal” or egalitarian exchanges like playing together, negotiating, taking turns, compromising, having fun, or sharing psychological intimacy—in other words, respecting and enjoying one another. Their relationships were harmed by an over-reliance on power and authority, and especially by stonewalling tactics like the “silent treatment.” When missteps happened, parents repaired and restored intimacy by expressing warmth and affection, talking about what happened, and apologizing.

This model of strengthening, harming, and repairing can help you think about your own interactions. When a family relationship is already positive, there is a foundation of trust and a belief in the other’s good intentions, which helps everyone restore more easily from minor ruptures. For this reason, it helps to proactively tend the fabric of family relationships.

That can begin with simply building up an investment of positive interactions:

  • Spend “special time” with each child individually to create more space to deepen your one-to-one relationship. Let them control the agenda and decide how long you spend together.
  • Appreciate out loud, share gratitude reflections, and notice the good in your children intermittently throughout the day or week.

You also want to watch out for ways you might harm the relationship. If you’re ever unsure about a child’s motives, check their intentions behind their behaviors and don’t assume they were ill-intentioned. Language like, “I noticed that…” or “Tell me what happened…” or “And then what happened?” can help you begin to understand an experience from the child’s point of view.

When speaking to a child, consider how they might receive what you’re saying. Remember that words and silence have weight; children are “emotional Geiger counters” and read your feelings much more than they process your words. If you are working through feelings or traumas that have nothing to do with them, take care to be responsible for your own feelings and take a moment to calm yourself before speaking.

In this context of connection and understanding, you can then create a family culture where rifts are expected and repairs are welcomed:

  • Watch for tiny bids for repairs. Sometimes we have so much on our minds that we miss the look, gesture, or expression in a child that shows that what they really want is to reconnect.
  • Normalize requests like “I need a repair” or “Can we have a redo?” We need to be able to let others know when the relationship has been harmed.
  • Likewise, if you think you might have stepped on someone’s toes, circle back to check. Catching a misstep early can help.

When you’re annoyed by a family member’s behavior, try to frame your request for change in positive language; that is, say what you want them to do rather than what you don’t. Language like, “I have a request…” or “Would you be willing to…?” keeps the exchange more neutral and helps the recipient stay engaged rather than getting defensive.

You can also model healthy repairs with people around you, so they are normalized and children see their usefulness in real time. Children benefit when they watch adults resolve conflict constructively.


Four steps to an authentic repair

There are infinite varieties of repairs, and they can vary in a number of ways, depending on your child’s age and temperament, and how serious the rift was.

Infants need physical contact and the restoration of love and security. Older children need affection and more words. Teenagers may need more complex conversations. Individual children vary in their styles—some need more words than others, and what is hurtful to one child may not faze another child. Also, your style might not match the child’s, requiring you to stretch further.

Some glitches are little and may just need a check-in, but deeper wounds need more attention. Keep the apology in proportion to the hurt. What’s important is not your judgment of how hurt someone should be, but the actual felt experience of the child’s hurt. A one-time apology may suffice, but some repairs need to be acknowledged frequently over time to really stitch that fabric back together. It’s often helpful to check in later to see if the amends are working.

While each repair is unique, authentic repairs typically involve the same steps.

1. Acknowledge the offense. First, try to understand the hurt you caused. It doesn’t matter if it was unintentional or what your reasons were. This is the time to turn off your own defense system and focus on understanding and naming the other person’s pain or anger.

Sometimes you need to check your understanding. Begin slowly: “Did I hurt you? Help me understand how.” This can be humbling and requires that we listen with an open heart as we take in the other person’s perspective.

Try not to undermine the apology by adding on any caveats, like blaming the child for being sensitive or ill-behaved or deserving of what happened. Any attempt to gloss over, minimize, or dilute the wound is not an authentic repair. Children have a keen sense for authenticity. Faking it or overwhelming them will not work.

A spiritual teacher reminded me of an old saying, “It is acknowledging the wound that gets the thorn out.” It’s what reconnects our humanity.

2. Express remorse. Here, a sincere “I’m sorry” is sufficient.

Don’t add anything to it. One of the mistakes adults often make, according to therapist and author Harriet Lerner, is to tack on a discipline component: “Don’t let it happen again,” or “Next time, you’re really going to get it.” This, says Lerner, is what prevents children from learning to use apologies themselves.

Apologizing can be tricky for adults. It might feel beneath us, or we may fear that we’re giving away our power. We shouldn’t have to apologize to a child, because as adults we are always right, right? Of course not. But it’s easy to get stuck in a vertical power relationship to our child that makes backtracking hard.

On the other hand, some adults—especially women, says Rick Hanson—can go overboard and be too effusive, too obsequious, or even too quick in their efforts to apologize. This can make the apology more about yourself than the person who was hurt. Or it could be a symptom of a need for one’s own boundary work.   

There is no perfect formula for an apology except that it be delivered in a way that acknowledges the wound and makes amends. And there can be different paths to that. Our family sometimes uses a jokey, “You were right, I was wrong, you were right, I was wrong, you were right, I was wrong,” to playfully acknowledge light transgressions. Some apologies are nonverbal: My father atoned for missing all of my childhood birthdays when he traveled 2,000 miles to surprise me at my doorstep for an adult birthday. Words are not his strong suit, but his planning, effort, and showing up was the repair. Apologies can take on all kinds of tones and qualities.

3. Consider offering a brief explanation. If you sense that the other person is open to listening, you can provide a brief explanation of your point of view, but use caution, as this can be a slippery slope. Feel into how much is enough. The focus of the apology is on the wounded person’s experience. If an explanation helps, fine, but it shouldn’t derail the intent. This is not the time to add in your own grievances—that’s a conversation for a different time.

4. Express your sincere intention to fix the situation and to prevent it from happening again. With a child, especially, try to be concrete and actionable about how the same mistake can be prevented in the future. “I’m going to try really hard to…” and “Let’s check back in to see how it’s feeling…” can be a start.

Remember to forgive yourself, too. This is a tender process, we are all works in progress, and adults are still developing. I know I am.

Prior to our visit, my daughter and I had a phone conversation. We shared our excitement about the rare chance to spend so much time together. Then we gingerly expressed our concerns.

 “I’m afraid we’ll get on each other’s nerves,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’ll be cooking and cleaning the whole time,” she replied.

So we strategized about preventing these foibles. She made a spreadsheet of chores where everyone signed up for a turn cooking and cleaning, and we discussed the space needs that people would have for working and making phone calls.

Then I drew a breath and took a page from the science. “I think we have to expect that conflicts are going to happen,” I said. “It’s how we work through them that will matter. The love is in the repair.”

This article is excerpted from a longer article on Diana Divecha’s blog, developmentalscience.com.

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