No matter how old our children get, parenting can sometimes feel like floating in uncharted waters, navigating through new experiences and unique circumstances. And despite the truth in that statement, you’re never really alone in your journey; there’s almost always a friend who can relate, or an expert you can turn to for advice on everything from paying your kids’ bills to relationship repair. Actually, the number of parenting experts out there can feel overwhelming, with each one offering his or her own brand of wisdom and catchy taglines. 

Over the last few months, CNN has been doing a segment called Shift Your Mindset in the Mindfulness area of its Life, But Better” series (which is worth a follow, really). The series recently featured Dr. Becky Kennedy, a parenting expert, clinical psychologist and author of Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want To Be. The interview focused on how to repair parent-child relationships after a blowup. While her advice is geared toward parents of younger children, it got us thinking: These recommendations work for adult children, too. Repairing a relationship that’s been damaged by anger or conflict is never easy, but the steps she outlines make good common sense.

So, we thought we’d share her wisdom, just retooled a bit with the adult child in mind.

Kennedy’s Advice for Repairing Parent-Child Relationships

Repairing a parent-child relationship (no matter what the child’s age) is about reconnecting with the child after disconnection. The most important thing to do, she asserts, is to bring “our safe, compassionate self to our children […to] change how that memory gets stored in their bodies. Layering on support after criticism, softness after yelling, and understanding our misunderstanding helps transform any messages our kids have internalized that they’re alone or bad inside.” In other words, as soon as you start feeling regret over how you handled a confrontation, you need to apologize, reflect on what happened, and then (if possible) share how you wished you’d handled the event differently.

Now, the context in which she applies this methodology is for when a parent loses their temper over something a young child has done, like hitting their sibling or breaking a beloved dish. But if you think about it, most adults would respond to this really well. How wonderful would it be to have someone approach you, apologize and then show they’d put thought into the interaction by sharing how they wish they’d done it differently? 

How Repair Works

This technique works, Kennedy claims, by changing the wiring in a child’s brain, effectively altering an existing memory even long after it occurred. “Memory isn’t simply a system of recalling events; it’s more like a game of telephone. Every time you remember an event from your past, your brain networks change in ways that modify the recollection of that event. […] The event doesn’t change, but the way it lives in your body does.” In other words, by sandwiching a traumatic event with safety, love and connection, the memory of that event won’t be stored as negatively as it otherwise would.

Even as adults, we all have memories of a conflict that may have resolved itself (in some way or another) but bitter feelings persist. Maybe you unfairly scolded your son or daughter about a choice that they made, and feel bad about how the message was perceived. Or perhaps there was a major argument between you that has since been smoothed over, but lingers in your mind. Kennedy says it’s never too late to repair your connection, even years after a blowup.

It’s Never Too Late

Kennedy speaks on the topic in a TED talk entitled “The single most important parenting strategy,” in which she walks the audience through an imagined repair with their parents. The response, she says, is incredibly emotional. “That impact demonstrates it’s never too late to have a powerful repair with our children. We can be cynical: ‘Sure, like that moment is going to change everything.’ No, it will not change everything. It will change some things, and changing some things is a direction toward change. … Start with small moments that have a big impact and get us walking down a new path.”

On that note, Kennedy is careful to remind people that just apologizing isn’t a repair in and of itself. “An apology can be used to shut down conversation. A good repair opens [it] up.” Reflecting together upon the event is a key step in the process, because it helps to facilitate a better understanding of what led to the confrontation and why you responded the way you did. That new knowledge will hopefully bring you closer in the end.

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