How to Repair a Relationship with a Child When You Blow It


| | | | |

Sometimes all the good intentions in the world are not enough to stop a parent from losing their temper with a child. One can wake up in the morning and make promises to oneself not to yell or get frustrated but before the day is over the yells have been unleashed.  Guilt, shame, alarm or defensiveness can flood a parent as they realize the impact of their actions. How can a parent recover and restore their relationship with a child after blowing it?

Parental overreactions to their child’s behaviour can harm their relationship. Human beings are not designed to be perfect and are prone to suffering lapses in emotional control and having immature reactions despite knowing better. In other words, mistakes in parenting are going to be made – this is not the issue as much as how we recover when we have made them.

There are many reasons why parents can overreact. Sometimes it is out of exhaustion, emotional overwhelm, being frustrated or alarmed about a child or something else in their life. One’s child may not even be the source of what is frustrating a parent but has become the person upon which a parent unleashes. Parents have emotions too and they get stirred up. What is key is not to unleash one’s unfiltered thoughts and feelings onto a child.

Steps to Repairing the Relationship

When a parent has overreacted or has been too harsh with a child, there are a number of things to consider in rebuilding or repairing one’s relationship with them.

  1. Take the lead in mending the relationship

The role of the parent is to lead and to assume responsibility for caring for a child. If there is distance between us or hurt feelings, it will be the parent who needs to get in there first to try and find a way to mend the divide. Looking for signs of receptivity can help us determine if a child is ready to be closer to us.

  1. Take responsibility for one’s actions

When we regret what we have done it is important to convey to a child what we are sorry when appropriate. It can be conveyed clearly and succinctly with, “I am sorry I yelled, I was frustrated and took it out on you.”  It is important not to grovel for forgiveness from the child as this would displace the parent from their alpha role. At the same time, the parent can take the lead in conveying that they disagree with their own behaviour and will intend to do differently next time.

  1. Let the child be upset

It is important to acknowledge and make room for a child to be upset with you, even if apologies have been made. To expect a child to ‘just get over it’ doesn’t honour their internal experience. Letting the child know that you are okay with them still feeling hurt gives them permission to feel vulnerably and honours their emotional world. Too often our kids hear they have to calm down and just get over it when they are still upset. If we are really sorry then we will give some room for a child to express their feelings about what has transpired too.

  1. Bridge the divide between you

When our overreactions have divided us from our kids, it is important to let them know we still desire to be close to them or look forward to spending time with them. We might want to draw attention to the next point of connection with them such as, “I will look forward to driving you to soccer or reading a book at bedtime.” Even if our kids don’t want us near us we can communicate that there is still a desire in us to be close to them.

  1. Focus little on their behaviour

When we blow it the reality is that our opportunity to teach a child something or influence them to do something different has been hijacked by our overreaction. The focus is now on the relational divide and alarm and frustration in the child that has been created in the wake of our overreaction. The focus needs to go on repairing the relationship and not rehashing the incident.

Children adopt the values of the people they are close to. When we take the lead in repairing our relationship we convey to them the importance of taking responsibility for our actions and their impact on other people.

What if Your Child Won’t Let You Come Near Them?

The hardest thing for a child to deal with is separation from someone they are attached to. They can feel highly alarmed and frustrated which leads to a reversal of their attachment instincts. Instead of wanting to be close to someone they can detach in defense. When kids detach and don’t let their parents near the goal is not to let yourself be alienated from the child nor provoke further detachment by pushing contact and closeness upon them.

When a child runs to their room and says ‘go away’ or turtles and tells everyone to “just leave me alone,” they are needing some distance given their overwhelming feelings. The goal is to keep them safe, convey you are still there and won’t leave them, but won’t pressure them. If you leave or back away it can create further alarm and frustration in a child that you are leaving them. Conversely, if you move too fast to be close to them you will increase their frustration and alarm and lead to a strong adverse reaction.

The best course of action is to bide your time, reduce pressure and coercion, and looks for signs that your child is ready for contact and closeness. When you see they are more receptive then you can proceed slowly and focus attention away from the event so as to reduce strong feelings. A parent can tell a child they will talk about it later and can come back to what isn’t working at another time.

What to do About Losing It?

I have met few, if any parents that were happy about seeing their child hurt or upset as a result of their overreactions. At the same time, a parent can feel frustrated with how they seem to be powerless to change their reactions. There are a number of helpful things to bear in mind when considering how to make headway on not overreacting.

  1. Make room for your feelings

Many time parents believe they have to cut out their frustration or feelings of alarm in order to take care of a child well. This is impossible, we are creatures who feel a lot. The goal is not to reduce our feelings but to neutralize them with other feelings. When our caring is bigger than our frustration we will be more tempered in our reactions to our kids. When our caring can answer the alarm we feel, then the result will be courage to face into things that are difficult. The answer is not to feel less but to feel more caring. Trying to cut out one’s feelings is the surest way to make sure they explode out of you. In the heat of the moment, it is helpful to try and find your caring about the type of reaction you give a child and its potential impact on them.

  1. Do no harm

If all you can remember in the most heated moments ‘to do no harm to the relationship’ then you will be in good standing with your child. Trying to actively parent when you are overwhelmed or frustrated often leads to things going sideways. Kids remember what they have done so there is always time to talk about things later when emotions are in check. The goal is to hold onto your relationship, quickly convey what isn’t working, and proceed to change the circumstances if warranted.

  1. Replay, review, and reflect on incidents

Sometimes the best view we have of ourselves is in hindsight. It is when we reflect on what didn’t work or what we regret that allows us to think about ways to handle it differently. There is no manual when it comes to parenting and there doesn’t need to be one. When we feel, we reflect, we make sense of our kids – all of these things can help us find our way through tricky situations.

Parenting has never been about perfection but about leading our children towards maturity. On this journey we will do things we regret but we can make intentions to handle it differently the next time. What our kids need to know is that our relationship is intact, they can trust us with their heart, and that we assume responsibility for our feelings and thoughts, making amends wherever needed. Despite the mistakes we will make, we need to ensure our kids that we really are their best bet.

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center. For more information please see www.macnamara.ca and www.neufeldinstitute.org.