A mother is talking with her unhappy teen daughter while they are sitting on a couch.

Rescuing Relationships: 7 Strategies To Break the Reaction Cycle and Rebuild Bonds With Your Kids

Stress can take a serious toll on our relationships. We can get into a painful cycle of rupture and reaction that feels impossible to get out of. Is repair even possible at this point? YES. Best selling author Rachel Macy Stafford tells us how.

My reactive mode was in overdrive.

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Inevitably, life gets unstable at times. We can be going along just fine, and then, out of the blue, we’re thrown off kilter. Suddenly, everything we thought we knew feels shaky and uncertain. 

Recent disruption in my life feels similar to a tumultuous spring my family experienced a few years ago. The unexpected loss of a parent and grandfather, teenage hormonal changes, friendship turmoil, academic adjustments, and a devastating medical diagnosis contributed to an unstable environment and emotional challenges that threatened to put my reactive mode into overdrive.

I tried observing instead of reacting to see patterns

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To keep from contributing additional stress to our already overloaded situation, I decided to observe my feelings without reacting and to practice being aware and honest with myself. My choice to be an observer vs. a reactor during that difficult season of life helped me make several incredible breakthroughs. 

I realized:

Anxiety in the people I love makes me want to control.
Sassiness in the people I love makes me want to get defensive.
Pain in the people I love makes me want to rescue.
Silence in the people I love makes me want to lash out.

A better response to avoid damaging relationships

A mom and a child's hands are clasped together
Photo Credit: Alissa Zorn

Those kinds of controlling, defensive, or rescuing responses from me are not helpful or healing. In fact, they only add to the chaos by creating disconnection and distrust. What is helpful and healing is to provide what is lacking in the situation: stability.

When a loved one is in distress, we are called to be steady—to respond consistently and calmly with love, understanding, and compassion, regardless of what is coming at us.

It's not too late for relationship repair!

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How to repair relationship with a child when the gap feels too wide to overcome?  

What if considerable damage to our relationship has already been done? What if we have overreacted to the point that there is only tension and disrespect?  

With small steps, a bit of self-awareness, and healthy dose of compassion, relationship repair can happen today. 

Using feedback I’ve received from young people through something I call The Index Card Exercise, as well as a decade of experience teaching young people with behavioral and emotional issues, I am here to tell you there is hope

Here are the keys I've learned for how to repair relationship with a child when love’s been lost. You can find these strategies, as well as helpful scripts, and practical tools for rebuilding connection in my bestselling book, LIVE LOVE NOW

1. Establish new boundaries.

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It might sound like this: “I’ve been allowing you to speak to me disrespectfully. This is not okay. I am worthy of kindness and respect. From now on, I will respond to you if you are speaking in a normal, considerate tone. If you need my help, you will need to ask kindly. I will no longer respond to yelling or disrespectful language or tone. You may see me taking more silent pauses. That is because I will not engage in yelling, pleading, or bargaining with you. My goal is to take pause and choose calm.”   

2. A similar dialogue could be an apology from you:

Serious,Father,Listen,To,His,Pre-teen,Little,Son,Talking,Seated
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“I realize I have been speaking to you disrespectfully. This is not okay, and I am truly sorry. You are worthy of kindness and respect. I want to make things right. From this point on, I’m going to try to speak to you in a normal, respectful tone. Please let me know when I’m not.” (See the distress signal strategy that follows.) 

3. Use a distress signal to create awareness.

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This might sound like this: “If you start raising your voice, being critical, sarcastic, or hurtful, I will place my hand on heart. This signal means you need to think about your tone or your words and make an adjustment. If you can’t do that right then, you will need to go to another room. You may also give me the same signal if I am raising my voice or being critical to you.” 

4. Treat your children as you wish to be treated.

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Respect is not simply given; it is earned by extending it to others, modeling it, and living it. Frequently assess your communication skills with self-examination questions like: 

  • “Am I speaking in a way I’d like to be spoken to?”
  • “Am I listening as much as I speak?”
  • “Does my child seem more relaxed or more agitated after spending time with me?”
  • “If I made this same mistake, how would I want someone to respond to me in my moment of shame?”  

5. Use self-affirming statements.

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Changing your inner voice from critical to encouraging will impact your outer voice, making positive change in your home more likely. Post self-affirming statements in visible places around the house – on the fridge, by the door, on the mirrors, in the closet. They might sound like: 

  • “I am worthy of respect and kindness.” 
  • “My voice matters and deserves to be heard.” 
  • “I am worthy of love.”
  • “I am not a doormat. I have a right to stand up for myself.” 

Say them. Repeat them. Believe them. Not only will they help you, but they may also become go-to phrases for your kids that drive positive change, build confidence, and set loving boundaries on communication.     

6. If it looks like a bad time to talk, it probably is.

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If your loved one appears sullen and angry, avoid pushing him or her into talking. Forcing discussion at that moment will likely escalate the situation and create more conflict. Remember, not everything has to be handled at that moment; most things can wait. A momentary pause can mean the difference between shutting down conversation or opening it up

It might sound like: “I see you are upset right now. I’ll give you some time to chill out and think. In an hour, we’ll go for a walk (or shoot baskets, or make brownies, or play cards), and at that time, we can talk about it.”  

7. Be generous with grace.

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When people are outwardly combative, there is a good chance they’re feeling down about themselves or their situation. Pushing your agenda, your opinion, or your demands on them at that time will feel like added pressure. It may also cause your loved one to feel unheard and alone. On the other hand, compassion and understanding can feel like support, like you are on their team and by their side. It might sound like this: 

  • “It looks like you have a lot on your shoulders right now. Can I help?” 
  • “Friendships can be really tough, can’t they?” 
  • “Your teachers are expecting a lot from you.” 
  • “I can tell you’re disappointed. I’m really sorry.” 
  • “You must be exhausted. You’re handling a lot.”  

Extending grace could mean everything to your relationship.

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It takes nothing away to extend grace – and it could mean everything to your relationship. 

By changing the way you respond to the young people in your life, you can positively shape their responses to you, as well as themselves. Although this is not easy to be ‘peace in the chaos,’ the results of that choice are immeasurable. Not only are you able to close gaps that once seemed insurmountable, but you become the most loving, compassionate, and peace-filled version of you! 

There is transformative power in trusting our kids' emotions.

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Sometimes it's hard to listen when our kids are upset! But what would happen if we didn’t worry so much about knowing the answer, fixing, or making things right and simply showed up, stayed…believed our kids?

Remarkable things happen when we trust the emotions in front of us and practice staying present without judging or trying to fix.

I discovered mistakes that were harming my connection with my kids.

Cartoon by Alissa Zorn of a parent and child separated by boulders to represent connection mistakes
Image Credit: Alissa Zorn

During the first few years of parenting, some parenting beliefs and practices that I thought were part of being connected were actually increasing my resentment and exhaustion.

It comes down to connection, not perfection.

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Image Credit: Alissa Zorn

You don’t have to be perfect! You’ll make mistakes. You won’t know the answers. You’ll lose your cool.

But if you make the quality of your relationship the priority, you will not steer too far off track. It comes back to connection; it comes back to you. Your kids don’t want perfection; they want you.