The importance of accountability (owning mistakes and shortcomings) can’t be understated in creating emotional safety in relationship. While this makes solid intellectual sense, it can be a difficult concept to practice.
It is likely we have all experienced apology without accountability. It is also likely we have been in the position of offering apology without understanding the significance of taking or demonstrating personal responsibility. This said, it is one of the most important attachment and relationship concepts that we can practice. Genuinely understanding and consistently owning our part in a relational rupture (a disconnect) and offering relational repair (returning to connection) through accountability provides the needed foundation of trust in relationship.
This is a key component in all relationships, and it is particularly important in parent-child relationships. It is also one of the more difficult to truly understand and practice. It is easy, for some, to get stuck on the notion that owning our mistakes or apologizing to a child is unwarranted. This seems to be most connected to an unawareness around the importance of emotional safety, experiencing the child’s feelings as inappropriate or upsetting, or the ideology that this (owning of mistakes) may cause a child to disobey or disrespect the parent.
Research in parent -child attachment demonstrates that children who experience environments where personal accountability is modeled ~grow into more secure adults. They become adults who are empathetic, responsible, attuned, and can reciprocate in their relationships. These are cornerstones of secure attachment and come through experiencing attunement in early relationship.
The concept of relational rupture and repair has its roots in the early attachment work of John Bowlby. Bowlby recognized the importance of parental attunement in creating ones eventual ability to engage in reciprocal relationship and provided the avenue for many to further research the life long impact of early bonds. These early relationships are where our neurobiological tracks (so to speak) are laid. Research shows that by the 3rd year of life (due to the exponential growth of the brain and the many associations it makes) our relational strategies are in place. They are then reinforced through time with further association.
If we were fortunate enough to grow in an environment where feelings were acknowledged and validated, and we were held safely accountable in our efforts toward independence, we generally grow into adults who trust, are trustworthy, and can reciprocate in relationship. In regard to understanding repair or owning of mistakes in a parent -child relationship reliance on relational as opposed to behavioral strategies are important. One such strategy is the Time-In Strategy. In essence a strategy for building relational attunement. The Time-in reinforces the importance to owning one’s own mistakes along with listening, sharing, and engaging the child in problem solving, along with support of natural and applicable consequences.
One of the most well-known, researched and recommended versions of the strategy comes from Circle of Security International (COS). It is the go-to strategy within the model (known as Circle of Security Parenting (COSP) and utilized to assist parents and children within the repair process after a relational rupture has occurred. Overall, COS provides an easy to understand and applicable roadmap in normalizing parent-child reactions, building perspective around the many nuances of interaction (and its future trajectory), aiding parents in understanding how their own histories impact parenting, and utilizing key relational strategies. The Time-in strategy utilized within the model recognizes there are times when either a child or parent may be to dysregulated (to emotionally upset) to engage in an immediate time in and provides guidance in how to navigate these moments as well as those moments when a time-in will flow easily. You will find the guide sheet for this excellent strategy here. Links to COS and COSP can be found in the resource section of this article.
In short synopsis, it is recommended when a parent makes the inevitable parenting mistake (and causes rupture or disconnect) he or she engages the child in relationship (a time-in as opposed to a time-out) to regulate the child’s feelings and provide connection in problem solving. This again enhances trust and provides the foundation of what will become the child’s internal (automatic neurobiological imprint) in responding in future relationships. While the specific guide sheet shared is in regard to parenting children birth to 5, the strategy can be modified to use across the lifespan (birth to 100 ~plus).
In example when an infant cries a parent ideally responds with soothing care and gentle words. This (again ideally) occurs on a consistent basis. This provides the future imprint for trust in connection. However, there are circumstances in which a parent may not respond or may respond harshly or dismissively. In turn if this occurs consistently this will become the imprint the future expectation in relationship which dictates belief and behavior.
In an ordinary example, a parent may come home from a long day’s work to meet his or her teenager who hasn’t done the chore(s) instructed. The parent might charge into the teen’s room demanding they get up and get the chore done. The teen in turn may meet this with anger or accusation. In this scenario a rupture in relationship has occurred. Of course, the teen needed to do the chore. This could still be achieved without the rupture. Once the rupture occurs the repair (apology with ownership of responsibility) follows. This is the place some find difficult. The thinking around this may include; “It was expected they (the teen) should have done what was expected and I (the parent) wouldn’t have gotten angry”, or “they (the teen) never do what is expected this is the only way to get his or her attention”. In reality (as supported through research) children grow into teens and adults who (barring specific diagnosis, or neurodevelopmental disorder) do what they have been taught to do through experience and relationship.
The repair could look something like this; the parent (after both have calmed) approaches the teen stating “I would like to talk with you about what happened earlier”. Ideally the teen is open and can hear. The parent continues along these lines, “I spoke to you harshly earlier. I wish I hadn’t. I know that must have hurt you. I am sorry I did that. You didn’t deserve this.” The parent then invites the teen to share his /her experience (again this may be difficult but listening through the teens feelings is important). Once the teen has shared the parent validates (not agrees) with what was shared. When both are calm the parent might state “I need you to know while I understand you lost track of time. I do need and expect the chores to be done when I get home”. From here problem solving or natural consequences (if genuinely needed) will be provided. This could take many forms. What should occur is reconnection with solid modeling of how to take ownership of mistakes. This again creates the experience of empathy, accountability (for both in the relationship) and provides for reciprocity.
In an example regarding future roadmaps and relationships, let’s say this same teen in later life is married with his or her own children. He or she is now equipped (if situations like the above were part of the overall experience) to provide this to their own partner, children, and in relationship in general. In example (and there could be as many varied examples as there are relationship combinations) lets say our teen is male and has grown with this foundational example of repair. He is married and his wife is expecting their first child. They both work and arrive home at approximately the same time each day. On this particular day, traffic was awful, he has learned there are pending layoffs at work, and he is worried. When he arrives home his wife greets him with a less than enthusiastic hello. (Her own day has been full, and her body continues to respond to the needs of pregnancy). He feels dismissed with her hello and meets her with his own dismissive words. Possibly stating “what’s wrong with you today”. As we can imagine this could take many directions, but maybe she says “I’m tired, there’s no need to be rude “. Both feel dismissed and an argument ensues with both going to their own corners of their home. At some point someone needs to offer repair or apology. Either could do this. In this scenario, he has a roadmap and can say (just as he was taught) “I am sorry I snapped at you, that must have hurt you, can we talk”. Ideally, they do, feelings are shared, understood, and validated. Further they reconnect, share their worries about the future, and future-plan.
In reality most of us do not have this intrinsic roadmap. We move forward with our histories in tow (bumping up against other’s histories) and inevitably cause and experience disconnect in our relationships. We do this (as our parents may have before us) with little conscious awareness of our part in this dance. One of the most important pieces of understanding we can gain is an understanding of our part in the dynamic of our relationships. This isn’t easy, it in fact is most often painful. It requires looking at our histories and the places where our needs were not met. This doesn’t always mean there were highly traumatic experiences (though this may be the case). It often means there were places where our parent’s, who didn’t have an informed relational roadmap, did their best but missed the mark at times. This said, it is important to remember that attachment research indicates if we as parents (barring abusive or neglectful behaviors) can attune even 30% of the time we can raise more secure children.
Overall, in regard to relationship (whether it be parenting, friendships, colleagues, or intimate relationships) ruptures are inevitable. If we are willing to see this and offer or engage in repair (apology) we will experience and create emotionally safe and trust building experiences.
As always, it is my hope that something written here will resonate with you. I am always curious about your thoughts and welcome your impressions and insights.
With deepest respect,
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National Hotlines: Treatment Referral Helpline: (1-877-726-4727)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-825
Bowlby, John: A Secure Base.
Copper, Hoffman, Powell: Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom.
Copper, Hoffman, Powell: The Circle of Security Intervention: Enhancing Attachment in Early Parent-Child Relationships Illustrated Edition