Years ago, a mother—who had an infant and a toddler at home—asked me to tell her the most important thing I’d learned in my years of working with parents and young children. I thought about it for a minute. What a huge question. And then it came to me, and I simply said: “Repair.”
Today we are in a situation that none of us could have imagined even a month ago. The life where you went to work, sent your children off to school, or dropped them off at daycare has disappeared into thin air. If you are lucky enough to have a job, you are working from home, and so are your children. Suddenly, you are home schooling them and working at the same time, which you have quickly discovered is not really possible. If you have suddenly lost your job, you are worried sick, and have not an ounce of energy to help your children with a math problem, a lost internet connection, or a reading assignment.
Given what’s going on, you are going to get upset. You’re going to lose your temper. More than once. More than twice. You try very hard, but it is all just too much. And here’s where repair comes in. Everyone, even under the best of circumstances, loses it with their children. It’s inevitable, and there’s no way around it. These days it’s even more inevitable. But there is always, always room for repair.
Psychologists have known for many years now that ruptures are unavoidable in any close relationship—with a partner, a parent, or child. But what differentiates good relationships from more difficult ones is the frequency of repair. That is, in “good enough” relationships (there aren’t perfect ones), we try to repair ruptures. You say, “I’m sorry, but I’m having a bad morning. It’s not your fault. Let’s sit on the couch together for a few minutes.” Or, “You know this COVID is really, really getting on my nerves. It’s not you. Let's have a hug.” You mend fences, you get things back on a better track, you take a deep breath and try to bring things back together.
A little boy once said to his grandfather: “You know the best thing about a nervous breakdown? After a nervous breakdown you get a nervous build UP!” We are all going to have little, and sometimes big, nervous breakdowns these days. But we can also restore the bonds that keep us feeling connected and safe, at a time when this is the biggest comfort we have.
Arietta Slade, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, and professor of clinical child psychology at the Yale Child Study Center. She has been working with parents and children for over 40 years.