This TED talk aired on NPR over the weekend. I was so impressed with her presentation, I’m sharing it with you as part of our Blog.
Here’s the transcript.
Alright, quick poll —
raise your hand if you have a relationship in your life
that’s meaningful to you.
OK, I assumed, but always good to check our assumptions.
I’m saying this because
while I’ll be focusing today on a parent-child relationship,
please know that everything I’m talking about
is applicable to any meaningful relationship.
So with that in mind, let’s jump in.
So it’s Sunday night, I’m in my kitchen.
I just finished cooking dinner for my family,
and I am on edge.
I mean, I’m exhausted, I haven’t been sleeping well.
I’m anxious about the upcoming workweek,
I’m overwhelmed by all the items on my unfinished to-do list.
And then, my son walks into the kitchen.
He looks at the table and whines,
And that’s it. I snap.
I look at him and I yell,
“What is wrong with you?
Can you be grateful for one thing in your life?”
And things get worse from there.
He screams, “I hate you.”
He runs out of the room and he slams his bedroom door.
And now, my self-loathing session begins,
as I say to myself, “What is wrong with me?
I’ve messed up my kid forever.”
Well, if you’re a parent, you’ve probably felt that pain.
For me, it comes with an extra layer of shame.
I mean, I’m a clinical psychologist
and my specialty is helping people become better parents.
And yet, this is true as well —
there is no such thing as a perfect parent.
Mistakes and struggles, they come with the job,
but no one tells us what to do next.
Do we just move on?
Kind of just pretend the whole thing never happened?
Or if I say something, what are the words?
Well, for years, as a clinical psychologist in private practice,
I saw client after client struggle with this question.
And now, as the creator of the parenting content and community platform
I see millions of parents around the globe struggle with this issue.
All parents yell.
No one knows what to do next.
Well, I’m determined to fill this gap.
After all, there’s almost nothing within our interpersonal relationships
that can have as much impact as repair.
Whenever a parent asks me,
“What one parenting strategy should I focus on?”
I always say the same thing:
“Get good at repair.”
So what is repair?
Repair is the act of going back to a moment of disconnection.
Taking responsibility for your behavior
and acknowledging the impact it had on another.
And I want to differentiate a repair from an apology,
because when an apology often looks to shut a conversation down —
“Hey, I’m sorry I yelled. Can we move on now?” —
a good repair opens one up.
And if you think about what it means to get good at repair,
there’s so much baked-in realism and hope and possibility.
Repair assumes there’s been a rupture.
So to repair,
you have to mess up
or fall short of someone else’s expectations.
Which means the next time I snap at my kid,
or my husband, or my work colleague,
instead of berating myself,
like I did that night in the kitchen,
I try to remind myself I’m focusing on getting good at repair.
Step one is rupture.
“Check that off, I crushed it.”
Step two is repair.
“I can do this.
I’m actually right on track.”
So let’s get back to my example.
I’m in the kitchen, my son is in his room.
Well, what will happen if I don’t repair?
That’s really important to understand
and helps us make a decision about what to do next.
Well, here are the facts.
My son is alone, overwhelmed
and in a state of distress,
because, let’s face it, his mom just became scary mom.
And now, he has to figure out a way to get back
to feeling safe and secure.
And if I don’t go help him do that through making a repair,
he has to rely on one of the only coping mechanisms
he has at his own disposal …
Self-blame sounds like this:
“Something’s wrong with me.
I make bad things happen.”
Ronald Fairbairn may have said it best when he wrote that, for kids,
it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God
than to live in a world ruled by the devil.
In other words, it’s actually adaptive
for a child to internalize badness and fault,
because at least then, they can hold onto the idea
that their parents and the world around them
is safe and good.
And while self-blame works for us in childhood,
we all know it works against us in adulthood.
“Something’s wrong with me.
I make bad things happen.
These are the core fears of so many adults.
But really, we see here, they are actually the childhood stories
we wrote when we were left alone
following distressing events that went unrepaired.
Plus, adults with self-blame are vulnerable to depression, anxiety,
deep feelings of worthlessness —
none of which we want for our kids.
And we can do better.
And it doesn’t mean we have to be perfect.
When you repair,
you go further than removing a child’s story of self-blame.
You get to add in all the elements that were missing in the first place.
Safety, connection, coherence, love, goodness.
It’s as if you’re saying to a child,
“I will not let this chapter of your life end in self-blame.
Yes, this chapter will still contain the event of yelling,
but I can ensure this chapter has a different ending,
and therefore a different title, and theme and lesson learned.”
We know that memory is original events
combined with every other time you’ve remembered that event.
This is why therapy’s helpful, right?
When you remember painful experiences from your past
within a safer and more connected relationship,
the event remains,
but your story of the event, it changes, and then you change.
we effectively change the past.
So let’s write a better story.
Let’s learn how to repair.
Step one, repair with yourself.
I mean, you can’t offer compassion
or groundedness or understanding to someone else
before you access those qualities within yourself.
Self-repair means separating your identity,
who you are,
from your behavior, what you did.
For me, it means telling myself two things are true.
I’m not proud of my latest behavior
and my latest behavior doesn’t define me.
Even as I struggle on the outside, I remain good inside.
I can then start to see that I’m a good parent —
who was having a hard time — behavior.
And no, this doesn’t let me off the hook.
This is precisely what leaves me on the hook for change.
Because now that I’ve replaced my spiral with groundedness,
I can actually use my energy
toward thinking about what I want to do differently the next time.
Oh, and I can now use my energy to go repair with my son.
Step two — repair with your child.
There’s no exact formula.
I often think about three elements:
name what happened, take responsibility,
state what you would do differently the next time.
It could come together like this.
I keep thinking about what happened the other night in the kitchen.
I’m sorry I yelled.
I’m sure that felt scary.
And it wasn’t your fault.
I’m working on staying calm, even when I’m frustrated.”
A 15-second intervention can have a lifelong impact.
I’ve replaced my child’s story of self-blame
with a story of self-trust and safety and connection.
I mean, what a massive upgrade.
And to give a little more clarity around how to repair,
I want to share a few examples of what I call “not repair,”
which are things that come more naturally to most of us —
definitely me included.
“Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you in the kitchen,
but if you wouldn’t have complained about dinner,
it wouldn’t have happened.”
Been there? Been there? OK.
Or “You know, you really need to be grateful for things in your life,
like a home-cooked meal.
Then, you won’t get yelled at.”
Not only do these interventions fail at the goal of reconnection,
they also insinuate that your child caused your reaction,
which simply isn’t true
and isn’t a model of emotion regulation we want to pass on to the next generation.
So let’s say we’ve all resisted
the “it was your fault, anyway” not-repairs,
and have instead prioritized a repair that allows us to reconnect.
What might the impact be? What might that look like in adulthood?
My adult child won’t spiral in self-blame when they make a mistake,
and won’t take on blame for someone else’s mistake.
My adult child will know how to take responsibility for their behavior,
because you’ve modeled how to take responsibility for yours.
Repairing with a child today
sets the stage for these critical adult relationship patterns.
Plus, it gets better —
now that I’ve reconnected with my son, I can do something really impactful.
I can teach him a skill he didn’t have in the first place,
which is how kids actually change their behavior.
So maybe the next day,
I say “You know, you’re not always going to like what I make for dinner.
Instead of saying ‘that’s disgusting,’
I wonder if you could say ‘not my favorite.'”
Now I’m teaching him how to regulate his understandable disappointment,
and communicate effectively and respectfully with another person.
That never would have happened if instead,
I had been blaming him for my reaction.
So here’s the point where you might have a lingering concern.
Maybe you’re thinking,
“You know, I have a feeling that my kid’s older than your kid.”
“I think it’s too late.”
Or “I have done a lot worse than you did in the kitchen.”
“Maybe it’s too late.”
Well, I mean this —
if you have only one takeaway from this talk,
please let this be it: It is not too late.
It is never too late.
How do I know?
Well, imagine, right after this, you get a call from one of your parents,
and if neither of your parents are alive,
imagine finding and opening a letter you hadn’t seen till that moment.
OK, walk through this with me, here’s the call.
I know this sounds out of the blue,
but I’ve been thinking a lot about your childhood.
And I think there were a lot of moments that felt really bad to you.
And you are right to feel that way.
Those moments weren’t your fault.
They were times when I was struggling,
and if I could have gone back, I would have stepped aside,
I would have calmed myself down,
and then found you to help you with whatever you were struggling with.
And if you’re ever willing to talk to me about any of those moments,
I won’t listen to have a rebuttal. I’ll listen to understand.
I love you.”
I don’t know many adults who don’t have a fairly visceral reaction
to that exercise.
I often hear, “Why am I crying?”
Or “Listen, that wouldn’t change everything.
But it might change some things.”
Well, I definitely do not specialize in math,
but here’s something I know with certainty.
If you have a child, that child is younger than you are.
The story of their life is shorter
and even more amenable to editing.
So if that imagined exercise had an impact on you,
imagine the impact an actual repair will have on your child.
I told you, it’s never too late.
(Cheers and applause)