by Diana Divecha: Here’s how to navigate the inevitable tension and disconnection in family relationships…
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.
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.