The Skills to Reconnect
Jason needed to be taught the skills required to restore his relationship with Dylan when it became disrupted. He had to write down, learn and practice the steps involved in handling emotionally difficult situations in order to prepare himself, and build new behavior patterns.
The first step was to identify the high-risk situations for him and Dylan and spell out the recurring, predictable behaviors. There usually are a limited number of such recurring triggering events. Learning what they were helped Jason be more vigilant, making risky situations more easily recognizable, familiar and predictable – and reinforcing awareness that his instincts fail him at these times.
Reviewing examples of key incidents that have occurred is helpful in the process of identifying and delineating typical unsafe scenarios. A range of situations usually represent a few common themes to look out for and remember. In this case, problems between Jason and his son were activated when Dylan felt ignored or unimportant.
Jason used his memories of how he felt when his dad failed to notice him to help himself develop an empathic understanding of Dylan’s feelings when this happened. He worked on identifying predictable reactions to his son in these situations. Jason learned to recognize his vulnerability to behaving badly with Dylan at these times, realizing that when Dylan ignored him he was reminded of how he felt when he was unable to have an impact on his dad.
Once Jason knew in advance the “answers” that would normally come from instinctive “mind reading,” the next step was to recognize risky situations in the moment and use his knowledge and awareness to handle himself differently. Using the guidelines below, Jason learned to resist succumbing to maladaptive instincts when triggered, and instead practice new, more effective behaviors with his son.
- Take a moment to step back from emotional reactions by reminding yourself that you have new tools to handle this better.
- Take some recovery time before approaching your child, reminding yourself to have restraint and pull back from instincts to react defensively.
- Once your equilibrium is restored, let your child know that you would like to talk.
- During the talk, don’t elaborate on your own feelings or justify your actions, and be concise in what you say.
- Explain in simple language to your child your understanding of what he is feeling and what happened. For example, in the case of Dylan and the athletic trick: “I know you were excited to show me the trick and wanted me to be excited too, and proud. I took the air out of your balloon. I got distracted by my own anxiety in that moment and made you feel uncared about. “
- Take responsibility and apologize. In the example of Jason taking the phone call, he could have said “I know you wanted to spend time together and I interrupted that by taking the call. I ignored you and then acted like I didn’t do anything wrong. I am sorry. I understand why you are mad. Maybe tomorrow we can try again.” (Offer to do something with him he enjoys.)
The capacity to repair dysregulations as they occur is an essential component of secure, healthy relationships. Restoring the flow between parent and child involves the parent making adjustments in response to the child’s emotional state. Such responsiveness allows children to come to know their internal experience. Further, when the parent repeatedly restores the emotional rhythm of the relationship, it fosters repeated experiences of being able to have an impact, and the child internalizes a sense of mastery, security, and trust in him- or herself and others.
Jason learned new ways to respond to his own and Dylan’s feelings, extricating himself and Dylan from the chains of his past, and developing a healthier and more continuous “real-time” connection with his son. Though at times he continued to slip into old patterns, Jason was largely able to break the intergenerational cycle by learning to be “on to” his blind spots and develop more effective behaviors. In this way, Jason allowed Dylan the opportunity to develop skills and capacities that he never had the chance to develop when he was a boy, thereby fulfilling his wish to truly be a better dad to his son than his dad was able to be to him.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.