Many of us feel emotionally worn down by the stressors of COVID-19. We may vacillate between optimism and pessimism, contentedness and grumpiness, faith and fear. These feelings often show up as greater irritation, less patience, and increased conflicts and power struggles with loved ones. But there is some good news to be found in all of this…
Healthy relationships are fueled by a process of relationship, rupture and repair. The “repair” after moments of conflict has the potential to increase trust, resilience and the overall strength of the relationship. The key is to consciously tend to the repair when a rupture occurs.
Conscious Discipline can help us use this process to improve our relationships with our children, our loved ones and ourselves, even as we feel stretched thin by COVID-19.
Healthy relationships start with a strong foundation of safety and connection. Check out this Brain State Model webinar with Dr. Bailey and this Brain State Model article for more insight on why the brain requires safety and connection for optimal function.
Safety includes physical safety, but it also includes the felt sense of safety that stems from trust and emotional wellness. An out-of-control adult never feels safe to a child. Composure is the cornerstone practice for adults seeking to create emotional safety. As an adult-first approach, Conscious Discipline asks us to apply composure, empathy, positive intent and all the other strategies we’ll discuss in this article with ourselves first— We cannot teach skills we do not possess! We must be willing to internalize these skills so we can offer them to ourselves and model them for children before attempting to teach them to others.
Connection is the next building block of healthy relationships. Authentic connection includes four elements: Eye contact, touch, presence and a playful situation. Authentic connection binds us together with the release of feel-good brain chemicals and hormones like oxytocin and serotonin. Realize connection cannot happen while you have one eye on your phone or half of your brain planning dinner. Also know that children who need loving connection the most will often ask for it in the most unloving ways. Be willing to see past those outward behaviors to the need within. Strengthen your relationships by choosing to be present, and fill your days with opportunities to connect.
We all experience conflict. Sometimes we plan multiple strategies to help us stay out of a certain power struggle… And then we end up engaging in that exact power struggle, the exact same way we’ve done it before. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve kicked a hornet’s nest until we’ve already been stung. And sometimes the rupture is beyond our control, like when the car breaks down and we don’t make it to an event that’s important to our child. The “rupture” is the moment when, despite all our best attempts, a relationship break of some sort occurs.
Though we tend to think of conflict and ruptures in a negative light, they provide a powerful opportunity for growth and a source of “good stress.” Good stress pushes us to think differently— to be more creative, stronger, more understanding and/or more resilient. It has a positive impact on the brain and helps us improve our ability to cope with future stressors. A deadline that pushes us to work harder and smarter, and an argument that results in an “ah-ha” moment about our partner’s perspective are two examples of good stress. Toxic stress, on the other hand, impairs brain function. Addiction, abuse, exploitation and neglect are hallmarks of toxic stress.
It is essential to note that the “rupture” we are discussing here is good stress, not toxic stress. Physically or emotionally abusive relationships cannot strengthen through the Relationship, Rupture, Repair process because they are built on unhealthy relationships and toxic stress. If you believe you may be part of an abusive relationship (whether abused or abuser), please seek professional help.
Repair begins with composure, is aided by positive intent, progresses through empathy and ends with problem solving. It is a responsive, two-way endeavor in which both parties have an equal stake and an equal role in recovery. Repair has the goal of mutual understanding and growth. It is not dictated from one person to the other, nor does it involve rights, wrongs or apologies. It has, at its heart, the understanding that all behavior is a form of communication and a desire to learn from that communication.
Since all conflict begins with upset, our first step is always to breathe and return to a calm, composed inner state. Implementing composure practice during times of calm will help us access this vital skill during times of upset. Positive Intent also helps us in this endeavor. Positive Intent is the willingness to see the best in others. It is looking past the behavior and seeing the essence of a person, knowing they are doing the best they can in a given moment.
Offering positive intent is a conscious choice and an act of love. Seeing the best is easy when life is smooth sailing. It becomes harder when we believe others are behaving inappropriately, disrespectfully or aggressively. Being willing to look beyond challenging behaviors to see the underlying need (to belong, exert power, have fun, gain freedom, survive, etc.) creates emotional safety. It decreases the number of relationship ruptures and helps us heal from ruptures once they occur.
The next essential skill for repair is Empathy: supportive, nonjudgmental acceptance. Joining in, pitying, “looking on the bright side” and commiserating are often mistaken for empathy, and generally have an alienating or exacerbating effect instead of a soothing one. True empathy has both an emotional component and a cognitive one.
- The emotional component asks us to understand what another person feels in order to help him become conscious of himself. It serves to co-regulate emotions. Adults and children co-regulate and enhance positive emotions through playfulness. They co-regulate and reduce negative emotions through empathy.
- The cognitive component asks us to imagine the child’s perspective in order to help them reflect and gain insight about their actions, the outcome of their actions and their feelings about that outcome.
Empathy strengthens our relationships and builds a foundation for healthy emotional development. It says, “I see you, feel you and hear you.” This sounds like a lofty, intangible goal, but it can be distilled into a relatively simple process called D.N.A.
D = Describe
Describe the behavior you are seeing without judgment and take a deep breath to download calm. You may use the following phrase, “Your arm is going like this (demonstrate), your face is going like this (demonstrate),” to encourage eye contact. Take a deep breath to download calm when the child looks at you.
N = Name
Begin to manage the Emotional State by naming the feeling the child is communicating. “You seem angry.” Use a questioning tone of voice and your best educated guess. (This gives the child the opportunity to correct you if your guess is off.) Then move quickly to the next step.
A = Acknowledge
Acknowledge the child’s desire and offer positive intent while validating the experience: “You wanted ____” or “You were hoping ____.” These statements acknowledge the child’s wishes and facilitate problem solving. Make these statements as tentative guesses to be confirmed or adjusted (just like naming the feeling). Also, be certain to maintain focus on the child’s experience. Phrases like, “I know you wanted_____” and “I understand you were hoping _____,” make the experience about you rather than the child, and are a form of false empathy.
Sometimes we may want to use D.N.A. to revisit an event after the fact. The process might look like this:
D = Describe, without judgment, what happened. “I yelled at you earlier today.” Breathe deeply to download calm.
N = Name your feelings at the time. “I felt really frustrated.”
A = Acknowledge your desire at the time. “I wanted us to have lunch together.”
Empathy through the D.N.A. process sets the stage for the willingness to solve the problem. Problem solving is an Executive State function in which we reflect on the original conflict and come up with a solution for handling it next time.
Sometimes, the solution is to teach a particular social skill. Sometimes the solution may require a prop like the Stop and Go Door Signs for Adults which designates when a child may or may not enter a room. Sometimes it will require a new structure like a routine. And sometimes, acceptance is the only solution. Unite to discover which solutions might work best for you, and support each other in implementing them.
Through this process, the conflict that ruptured the relationship becomes a tool for increasing mutual trust and understanding. Even with the source of the conflict handled, big feelings may persist. Let them be. Remember, the goal isn’t to “happy up;” it is to manage our feelings in healthy ways.
Once the moment has passed, it is essential to reconnect in some way. A shared connection signifies that the relationship is whole. Authentic connection requires eye contact, touch, presence and a playful situation. I Love You Rituals are activities specifically designed to provide these four elements in order to strengthen relationships. You can find more information and examples of these rituals in our resources, including:
- Printable: I Love You Rituals Choices Spinner
- Printable: Choice Board – I Love You Rituals
- Printable: I Love You Rituals Teddy Bear Activity Board
- Webinar: Connecting with Your Kids with I Love You Rituals
- Photo and video examples in Shubert’s School
We also regularly post videos of I Love You Rituals on our Facebook page!
Any activity that includes eye contact, touch, presence and a playful situation will serve to strengthen the bond. Snuggling, reading together, family walks and gaming together are all helpful activities, but our relationship-building connection goals will only be met if these activities incorporate eye contact, touch, presence and playfulness.
A Final Note: You First!
Conscious Discipline is an adult-first approach. That means adults must be willing to acquire and offer a skill to children before attempting to teach that skill to children. If we want to teach our children composure, we must first develop our own composure skills so we can offer children composure as we begin to teach them composure. Basically, we cannot teach skills we do not possess!
When it comes to the “connect, rupture, repair” process, the adult-first approach asks us to repair the ruptures we experience within ourselves. We have a tendency to berate ourselves or view ourselves badly when things don’t go as we’d intended. Instead of holding on to this self-loathing, we can consciously choose to repair the rift between how we wanted to behave and how we actually behaved. We do this by applying to ourselves the same processes we just learned how to apply with children.
Offer yourself Positive Intent and Empathy. Rest in the knowledge that you’re doing the best you can in this moment and have faith that all mistakes are opportunities to learn. Let your missteps be oopses to learn from rather than weights to bear. Forgive yourself for the things you said when you were “hangry,” the things you did when you were preoccupied by COVID-19 fears, and the things you yelled when you were so over-the-top frustrated that you couldn’t see straight. Offer yourself empathy by using a modified D.N.A. process in your self-talk, “I yelled and grabbed Ash’s book from him. I felt tired and frustrated. I really wanted him to stop reading and go to sleep,” and then look to learn from your missteps.
Repairing our relationship with ourselves paves the way for us to repair the relationship ruptures we experience with children and loved ones. Once you’ve viewed a situation with empathy instead of judgment, you’ve set yourself up to return to an Executive State from which you can reflect and problem solve ways to do it differently next time. Work to recognize the triggers that are likely to throw you into a reactive Emotional State or Survival State. Commit to specific strategies, structures and safeguards you can realistically implement for yourself. These may include ample composure practice, better self-care, new routines, visual props, increased opportunities for connection and/or helpful checklists. Commit to doing it differently next time, and work to consciously repair the relationship with your loved one.