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Recipe for repair

I used to struggle with apologies.

Even when I wanted to, I had no idea how.

And then there were those times when I didn't want to, mostly because "I was right".

I struggled with coming back to my children when they did something that triggered me and I reacted, and later regretted my reaction.

I had no blueprint for apologies. I recall being asked to "say sorry" as a child, but cannot really recall anyone apologizing to me. And if we believe that children "do as we do, not as we say", then I guess it is little wonder I got a bit stuck.

Repair (that may look or sound like an apology) is part and parcel of any lasting relationship. Terry Real, relationship therapist and the founder of Relational Life Therapy, calls it the "harmony-disharmony-repair" cycle, and says it is a natural cycle that all relationships go through. I have been pondering on the recipe for repair, and here is one that I found.

In Valerie Perrin's novel "Three" a girl living with her grandfather, who is a mailman, secretly opens letters addressed to other people, reads them, and puts them back in her grandfather's bag. When he finds out about it he comes over to her school and shouts at her and hits her in front of her friends. Later, she discovers a letter addressed to her on the kitchen table.

My love,

You will not have to steal this letter from my bag. This letter belongs to you, it is yours. Reading other people's correspondence is very serious, but I am sorry. I don't know how I could hit you. I got scared [...] I should not have hit you, and on top of that in front of your friends. [...]

I found myself crying as I read it, and wondered why it made me cry. And then it struck me - it was the beauty in this apology, the way the adult took responsibility, putting connection and understanding before everything else and the ability to see the world from the child's perspective.

Was he right to be mad? For sure, but then again, in the words of Terry Real: From a relational perspective, the answer to "who's right?" is "who cares?"

Taking responsibility for repair

As an adult, I go first. I was so touched by how the grandfather takes responsibility for his reaction, without suggesting any of this was the girl's fault.

To be able to come in with repair in my heart, I take a moment to connect with myself - to name what was going on for me and give myself some compassion. To notice that getting lost is so human. And that there was a reason I reacted the way I did.

If I want my children to be able to repair, I repair to show the way.

I remind myself that I have a more mature brain and I can connect the dots here. It's my job to pave the way, both for our relationship here, in the future, and for their future relationships. I want to give them the blueprint.

Putting ourselves in their shoes & connecting to feelings there and then

For a moment, after I connect with myself, I imagine what it may have been like for my child then and there. Scary? Lonely? Upsetting?

I want to connect to the way they were feeling when I reacted, not to blame myself, not to invite guilt, but rather to see the world from where they're standing.

I loved how the grandfather above saw the humiliation his girl must have felt when she was hit in front of her friends. It takes so much insight to put ourselves in our children's shoes - but we can do it.

Remembering that there is a good reason for every behaviour

Under every behaviour there is a feeling, and then under every feeling there is a need. This means, that whatever we do, we do it in order to meet a need - even if most of the time we are not really aware of it.

The girl in the book was stealing letters and reading them - we could stop there. And the grandfather didn't stop there, instead he saw a deeper need and responded to it by sending her her own letter.

When my youngest daughter was smaller and wanted to participate in a game her sister invented and her sister said "no" - she would get so upset she would kick. If I only stop on the level of behaviour, I will simply want to stop the kicking and that's that - but this wouldn't address the root of behaviour, and in so doing I would not really see my child in her full humanity. Instead, if I wonder about what good reason she might have and see that she really wanted to be included, I can empathize with that. Who wouldn't want inclusion?

The important part of this is that understanding doesn't mean agreeing. Seeing the underlying reason for behaviour doesn't mean I will say "go ahead and kick your sister". It doesn't mean the grandfather in the book wrote: "my child, keep opening those letters if you really need to". But what it does mean is that I can see the beauty in this child at all times, connect to the need and maybe find a different way of meeting it - like the grandfather, who sent his granddaughter a letter.

So here it is, my recipe for repair when I reacted in a way I do not enjoy, when I wish I could turn back time, when I say things that I regret. I take a breath and with it take responsibility for reaching out to my kids. To let them know that disharmony is a temporary state in the cycle of relationship, and that it does not end relationships. I acknowledge how it may have felt for them, and connect to their reality by recognizing that whatever they did must have been done to fulfill a need.

  • Remember when you threw a block at me and I shouted at you yesterday? Yeah, that must have been scary? And you really wanted to finish building that tower...

  • You know how when you said "I don't like you" I walked out of the room and you cried? I imagine that you felt upset and lonely? And you really wanted me to understand you then....?

And then, and only then, after we managed to come back to harmony I offer an idea for perhaps handling it differently next time. And if my child has space to listen, I offer a perspective of how that was for me.

I have come to cherish repairs, to be intentional about them, to drop down the guard and find a recipe that works. And to follow Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher, as she says "Healing is in returning, not in not getting lost".

May we find ways to return to our children after every storm.

With care,


If you want to explore ways of being more intentional in your repair - the fifth session of my upcoming course "Parenting through Anger" is all about that. Maybe you'd like to join?

*** More resources:

A great place to explore supporting our children from a relational-developmental perspective (with a book for children also recommended here) can be found in the work of Deborah Macnamara:

A read on forced apologies, their consequences, and what to do instead from Janet Lansbury:

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