The Thanksgiving holidays are almost here. For many families it’s a celebratory time- a chance to catch up with siblings and old friends. Others approach the season with a sense of dread – dread of sharing a table with relatives with whom past grievances or unresolved differences are all they have in common.
What makes it so difficult for some people to “forgive and forget?” While temperament and experiences play a role, it is also true that some people never learn to “do-over” relationship mishaps. They are ill-equipped to recognize when relationships are wobbling, reconcile differences with others, or repair the damage done by hurtful words or deeds. A failure to learn these important aspects of self-regulation have long lasting consequences for the quality of children’s future relationships.
Patching up relationships starts with an ability to pick up on another’s body language and facial expression. Culture plays a role in how these are interpreted. Some cultures define direct eye contact as a sign of respect, while others perceive the same behavior as defiant. Stories and dramatic play help children discover various interpretations of similar gestures, or mannerisms.
As children grow to realize that similar experiences can trigger different reactions in themselves and others, they benefit from learning how to check in with others before blurting out their own opinions. They can also be taught to express themselves in a manner that leaves space for disagreement and/or further conversation.
Nurturing children’s social awareness or emotional intelligence heightens their attentiveness to subtle shifts in another’s mood or bearing that signals a misunderstanding or hurt feelings. They can check in before things get out of control.
Teaching children how to reconcile differences requires giving them strategies they can use to resolve conflicts. They need to learn the fine art of compromise, and be able to clarify misunderstandings in a fair, respectful manner. These include using “I” statements to avoid blaming others, generating alternative solutions to problems, and seeking the help of a mediating third party when they are unable to resolve a situation on their own.
While social awareness and an ability to resolve conflicts go a long way in avoiding relationship errors, mistakes happen. And they should not be ignored, or thoughtlessly dismissed with a perfunctory apology. True relationship repair requires the offending party to somehow fix what’s been broken – clean up the mess, provide a replacement, give something of themselves to make amends.
Children with early trauma histories struggle with the concept of relationship repair. Experience has taught them that mistakes destroy relationships. Teaching them to believe in the restorative nature of a relational “do-over” is an important step in helping them heal the past, and keep moving forward.