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Help, I Yelled! Have I Done Irreparable Damage?

Colleen Adrian

Some of my most despairing parenting moments have been when I yelled, blamed, or criticized my son, and then felt like a complete failure when his face fell, or his shoulders slumped as he realized he didn’t live up to my expectations. I felt crushed, thinking that I might have done irreparable damage. It’s painful look at child or teen whom we love deeply and worry that they might need therapy someday as a result or our actions.

But here’s what I’ve learned. It’s never irreparable. I was so relieved when I listened to Diane Poole Heller’s audiobook[1] and learned that we only need to be attuned[2] 30% of the time to create a securely attached relationship. The rest of the time, we can repair. So, while it’s important to do our best to attune, when we (inevitably) miss the mark sometimes, the key is to have good skills for repairing. And when we repair, we not only re-connect with our child and maintain attachment, the child feels our humanness and will also learn to be compassionate with themselves and repair when they make a mistake.

My son is 16. I’ve been searching for answers for how to stay connected and repair fractures in our relationship since he was 3! We’ve had lots of ruptures in our relationship because of my nervous system dysregulation and my own inability to attune at times when he was younger. But our relationship at this time is as close as it’s ever been. In fact, I’d say it’s closer and that he trusts me more than he did a few years ago, even though we still have moments where I become dysregulated, lose my patience, and then regret it. They’re fewer and further between because of what I’ve learned and the parenting practices I now use.

But the real key is this:

He sees me make mistakes and then repair with him. He sees my humanness and he knows that he can mess up and I’ll extend to him the same compassion and understanding that I give myself. And I see him learning to be more patient and compassionate with himself.

If you’ve grown up in a family in which your parents were somewhat disconnected or not emotionally attuned to you, or especially if there was a lot of blaming, anger or violence in your home, this will be more difficult for you than others. Parents who have experienced this often have a harder time catching themselves before reacting to their kids when triggered. That’s because those past experiences have affected their nervous system wiring—but it’s possible to get professional help for changing that as well.

The work of building connected relationships with our children is a journey of stepping in and out of connection, both with ourselves and with our child. We build and strengthen the new neural pathways for connecting with our children when we use the connective practices more regularly.

Here are a few of the practices that have been most helpful for me when I’ve been triggered by my child’s emotions or behaviour and lost my patience, and/or haven’t attuned to him very well:

  1. Step away, if your emotions are running high, and give yourself some time to calm and regain your regulation
  2. If you feel the need to explain why you’re stepping away, do your best to use words that take responsibility for your need and don’t blame, e.g., “I need a few moments to collect myself”. Avoid, “If you had…” or “if you hadn’t…”—sentences that suggest that if your child’s behaviour had been different, you wouldn’t be angry. While your child’s behaviour may have triggered your anger, you are responsible for your emotions and it’s not your child’s responsibility to change their behaviour so that you can keep control of your emotions. Children who are blamed for their parents’ anger begin to shut themselves down and limit their self expression (or repress emotions) to avoid triggering their parents’ anger—because they need to feel safe, and adult anger is scary for them.
  3. Walking, doing something physical, or noticing where you’re feeling the anger energy in your body and allowing it to move (or using it to move) can be helpful for getting grounded and calm again (rather than trying to override it, get rid of it, or tell yourself that you shouldn’t be angry). When we’re angry, our body has a physiological response (increased HR and BP, increased blood flow to the limbs, increased adrenalin and energy) because our nervous system is preparing to fight.  If we use that energy and allow it to move through us without getting stuck, we’ll eventually become calm again. It’s about honouring the sensations and responses of the body, not getting rid of them.
  4. A helpful tip for honouring the body is to bring your attention to your body sensations. Scan your body, and if you notice some uncomfortable areas, see if you can notice those with curiosity, rather than trying to get rid of them by deliberately “releasing” the tension or tensing to shut them down.
  5. Remember that it’s your responsibility to help your child calm; it’s not their responsibility to change their behaviour so that you can control your emotions. You’re the adult.
  6. Wait until you’re calm before approaching your child to repair and reconnect.
  7. If you blamed or criticized your child when you were angry, clearly tell them that it wasn’t their fault you got angry–that you’re human and sometimes you have a hard time managing your emotions but you’re trying. Reassure them that it’s never their fault.
  8. Do your best to forgive yourself–and remember that when you’re doing that, you’re role modelling and teaching them to be gentle with themselves and forgive themselves. That’s what we all want for our kids, right? Empathy for themselves and others.

I also do my own personal healing work with practitioners. Learning skills for calming my own nervous system, so that I can process and work through my own anger without necessarily directing it at my child, has increased my capacity to deal with whatever comes my way with a bit more patience. Also, healing my own past trauma enables me to stay more connected to my body and recognize my own feelings and emotions, which in turn helps me to attune to my child.

Does this mean that I never get mad at my son? No! Not at all! But with practice, I’m getting better at catching myself beforehand and making the choice to take some time out. And when I do get angry, I take time away, and then go back and repair after I’ve calmed myself. It feels like an honest, real relationship.

And here’s the truth.

Relationships aren’t strong and connected because we’re “perfect”–there’s no such thing. Relationships are strong and connected when we take responsibility for our limits and mistakes, learn and use skills for repairing, and when we’re honest about our humanity and do our best to bring our whole, vulnerable, messy selves to the relationship with love and grace.

🌷If you’d like to explore how somatic therapy could support you to regulate your nervous system and make some changes to familial patterns, you can learn more about that here.

[1] Healing Your Attachment Wounds, audiobook by Diane Poole Heller

[2] Attunement is our ability to sense, or feel, what another person is experiencing, and thereby have some understanding of how they feel, what they’re experiencing, and what they might need. The ability to attune to someone else is determinant upon being able to feel our own body sensations and emotions, so when we feel disconnected or dissociated from ourselves, we have a hard time attuning.