Rupture, repair, and the holy grail of resilience…

Rupture, repair, and the holy grail of resilience.

How and why the skills to navigate rupture, secure effective repair are among the most important we can give the children we parent and educate, in the beautiful, broken world we inhabit.

Of all the topics I speak about the most, and therefore get to mull about the most, is the mental health grail of resilience. Parents, educators, leaders, all of us want to know what are the things that we can do that will help us withstand life’s shocks, and adapt to change in healthy ways.

Quite often resilience is confused with strength, grit, the ability to endure. But that’s not quite it. I’m drawn to the child development research of Ed Tronick, most famous for the ‘Still Face Experiement’…And his research, along with that of numerous others, shows us that the ability to effect repair when inevitable ruptures occur, is one of the primary features of resilient people and resilient relationships. Whether familial, friends and romantic partnerships, or in our professional lives.

Repair and rupture have been more prominent than usual in my family life over the past year. Firstly in a rupture with a close family member which has been ongoing in the absence of sufficient coming together to make repair. And secondly, more recently in an accident which has meant our immediate family life has had to significantly reconfigure around what it takes to heal a badly broken ankle. Hence the pause on the writing for a time!

Taking the time to invest in repair is essential to growing, strengthening, and adapting to life’s changes and the inevitable breakages caused both by fate and human frailty. It’s the essence of what Brene Brown talks about when she writes about strength in vulnerability, when she is thinking about leadership both on a micro level in interpersonal relationships, and also in the world beyond.

Strong backs, soft fronts, wild hearts.

Ed Tronick is the Director of the Child Development Unit and a Professor of the University of Massachusetts. And his work on resilience and attachment since the late 1970s has been hugely influential. When I have used the clip which gives an overview of the experiment and its findings in my training workshops, it’s really interesting to see the reactions of educators and parents.

In the clip, a mother settles her baby in the room for the experiment, and we see her interacting with her young child. The mother is observant and responsive, and there’s lots of mirroring between mother and child. They are in sync. It’s like a beautiful dance of action and response. Then, as per the experiment, she remains in the presence of the baby, but keeps her face neutral and still. For a very short time. A couple of minutes.

The impact is always striking. I always notice the discomfort in the room as the child registers the change and very rapidly falls apart physically and emotionally in response to the experience of not feeling seen and heard and responded to.

The discussion in the aftermath is also interesting. It’s quite common for people to feel hostile and blaming of the mother for subjecting her child to this distress. No matter how short the duration of it and the rapidity and effectiveness of the repair once the experiment is over.

Tronick compares the situation to ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’…where the ugly is neglect, and the baby or young child does not experience attunement from the caregiver, does not have much -if any – response to their needs, does not feel safe, seen, or heard. These babies and children become the least resilient – and there are now huge bodies of research to corroborate Tronick’s findings.

Misattunement – persistent misattunement, and failure to meet a child’s emotional needs.

And widely, in society, we concur with the idea that emotional neglect, neglect of a child’s emotional or physical needs constitutes abuse. And there’s a spectrum of this – children whose needs are ignored. Children who are only accepted conditionally. Their needs are secondary to the needs of their caregivers. The requirement that the child must present in one way or another (eg as clever, pretty, compliant, never upset or it’s just too much).

Now these children develop the power to withstand- they are amazing in many ways. They learn to whiteknuckle through their strong feelings. They get the message. That they will have to cope by themselves. Child Psychotherapist Esther Bick wrote about these children developing a ‘second skin’ – where you could see them physically brace, their muscles and skin armouring and tensing in the face of emotional distress. In the absence of being held by a loving caregiver, they hold themselves.

Why these children will find it hard to develop resilience as they grow, is that they never really get practice of bringing their full, authentic selves to others. They have been programmed not to ask for help – because it won’t come. They are not able to speak to their emotional needs – or even acknowledge that they have them internally let alone externally.

They may develop avoidant attachment styles, where they present as being so independent or self sufficient that they look like they’ve really got things covered. They are strong, and not ever needy. They may also be very hard to please, finding all sorts of faults and picking away at the threads of relationship that should pull them closer to intimacy, but instead they fray them to prevent that closeness ending in the rejection they have come to expect.

They may also develop anxious attachment patterns – people pleasing, checking, seeking to control, to ensure presence and connection. But again, in trying to second-guess what the other person wants in order to keep the connection and prevent any rupture, they again subsume their needs to the needs of others and don’t bring their full selves.

The most problematic of all is the disorganised attachment pattern where there is a mixture of anxious and avoidant approaches to relationships, and a good deal of self-sabotage. This is associated with the worst types of fractures in family life – where the child has experienced terror at the hands of those who should have protected them. They will find it very hard to form or sustain attachments with peers, and will be experienced as the most hard to reach in education settings.

So Tronick’s research brings up the idea that where there is no, little or ineffective repair, there will be the least resilience.

Too Good Parenting

Interestingly, the second least resilient group are those for whom the parenting is ‘too good’. Where the caregiver anxiously anticipates every need the child has and is unable to tolerate any kind of rupture and defends against it.

This means that the child does not develop any musculature for dealing with discomfort. Doesn’t develop any emotion regulation skills because they don’t actually encounter and work through emotion dysregulation. Parent perfectionism leads to brittleness as children, and if it persists through their childhood and adolescence, will lead to a brittle adulthood as well.

If we want to be resilient, and develop resilience in children, teens, and young adults, we need to get good at repair. This is the fundamental that helps us move into and stay in secure attachment – which the 85 year old Harvard Study of Adult Development research project (Also known as the Grant and Glueck Study) has determined as the number one factor in healthy adult development.

The importance of connection.

Positive, robust, lasting, authentic relationships are THE factor that outclasses physical health, exercise, diet, or any of the other key elements we usually have as our go-tos of looking after ourselves as we age and grow. At the same time as the Harvard Study of Adulthood has matured along with its cohort of subjects, the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy has named loneliness as the biggest single mental health issue.

“Loneliness is like a hunger, a signal we’re lacking something for survival.” Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General.

When we look more carefully at the dynamics in the Still Face Experiment, we can see within the 3 minute clip, a superb example of rupture. Yes, the mother’s still face and lack of responsiveness, is without doubt distressing. But we see the experience rapidly and effectively repaired.

The mother uses her voice and physical presence to soothe the baby immediately once the experiment is complete. She holds the baby’s hands, and when we listen to the message she gives her child, she reassures, and tunes in…’Ok, baby. I’m here…and what are you doing?…Oh yes…what a big girl…’ What she doesn’t do is collapse in distress or join with the babies distress and pick her up and cuddle her or take over her one-year-old’s feeling state…she comes alongside.

This parent is able to tolerate a little manageable rupture. She’s confident in the ability her child has to experience the discomfort. And when she comes back into the ‘dance’ of the relationship once more, the child’s response is really fast: to get in sync in responsive mirroring, showing the joy of the recovery and returning back to her relational resting point…In this act of co-regulation, equilibrium, balance, and harmony is quickly restored.

Have a look and see – the perfection of rupture, and repair encapsulated perfectly here in this clip showcasing Tronick’s ‘Still Face’ work:

The acceptance of rupture, is a very human, compassionate, and realistic base to operate from. It links very strongly to the research by Kristen Neff on Self Compassion…That we can accept and link to our common humanity – that we cannot and will not get things right all the time…That there will be times when we are found wanting – by our own standards, and by the standards of others…

That strength and resilience is not found in never getting things wrong. Avoiding rupture. Neither is it about avoiding connection or pretending that rupture hasn’t happened or doesn’t matter.

Resilience is found in having misattunements and responding to them effectively. Using self-compassion to clarify the red-mist of self-blame, guilt, or shame. To be able to acknowledge the human error and have the softer landing to experience the set-back and be quick to identify and speak to the need – without shame. But with the expectation of being seen, or being heard, of being safe to name those needs.

So when parents are able to get it right, and get it wrong, to show we can tolerate short periods of discomfort and help make repair deftly, we model rupture and repair. And we can – over the thousands on thousands of conversations we have around these micro and macro ruptures and repairs…we can think out loud to model that self-compassion piece.

Then our children are able to internalise a less harsh inner critic, and develop a more resilient inner voice around disappointment and failure. The inner voice that can speak to the discomfort and the rupture…

‘I am so sorry to have upset you and let you down. I completely forgot X. I got so caught up in Y that I didn’t notice the time. I can see from your face how much it meant to you. I’m really sad about this. And annoyed at myself because this is totally on me. Gah! Can we talk about what I can do to make things better? I need to think about what I can do about it – what do you think?’

Sometimes when we are in a position of authority – whether it’s as parents – and sometimes as teachers – it feels like there is a difficulty around repair – making a really good apology. Somehow it feels like we lose our authority and respect by being vulnerable when often it’s the opposite – it’s a chance to reconnect, to repair, strengthen and grow.

The shame around getting things wrong around young people, being a poor role model, can make us awkward or shy of actually being properly accountable for our actions or inactions. The stakes feel really high.

In school life, when there is a complaint or a problem that has come to the surface with the impact a certain approach has had on an individual or on a group can lead to a really reactive, defensive, response, rather than the openness, compassion, and curiosity that would lead to more directness and better connection when working through problems.

One of the best things that we can model and teach our children are the skills of repair. Really effective repair is a complex thing, involving quite a lot of process and skill that can only be layered up over time and lots of experience of safety in the doing process.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s involved.

  • How to be observant, and able to ‘read the room’
  • How to be responsible and accountable for our actions and our emotions.
  • How to be empathetic and to be vulnerable.
  • How to give both an effective formal apology, whether disentangled (with caveats and omissions) or full (unreserved and straightforward).
  • How to make sure that the repair is authentic as well as in service of the other and the relationship as a whole.
  • How to use our voices effectively to express our needs appropriately and accurately.
  • How to ensure that the apology or repair does not just exist in form, but in function – how there will be change, and how that change will be sustained, and what might happen if it isn’t.
  • How to extend full or partial (disentangled) forgiveness

In securely attached relationships, we should have a strong, internalised sense of our worth, and that we should be able to express our needs, and have our needs met. This means acceptance of our vulnerability, and a sense of dependency on meeting and being met in our connections. It’s a two way street.

We don’t feel it’s a catastrophe if we’ve come up short, or if our partner or friend has come up short. We’re realistic about rupture, and see it as something that can be figured out.

There’s trust and optimism that we will be able to work things out. Even though things might not be restored to their former pristine nature, the mending will make us resilient and stronger around those fracture points. In other words, rupture can be the chance to deepen instead of an imperative to distance.

In the past we have looked at attachment styles as being fixed from the template of our early years’ experience with care-givers Typically in the first two years of life…Whilst the template set there is very strong, there are many different ways in which attachment repair and growth is possible – through experiences of secure attachment.

This may happen through friendships and mentorship that can happen as a counterbalancing experience in adolescence or as a child grows in school. As Dr John Ivens, Clinical Psychologist, and Head of the Maudsley Hospital School once said memorably when opening a Mental Health Conference for schools in Southwark, Schools are therapeutic places, where people learn and grow. This doesn’t mean they are perfect places. Or tidy places. They are places of working through and can be a little bit messy along the way. Whilst also being outstanding (!).

Every experience of being in secure attachment has the potential to provide corrective emotional experience that will help strengthen and repair even where there have been traumatic and difficult content from the past. Knowing what these are and what these look like is a really important start.

When we know what we are aiming for, and why, it helps us become more sure on our path as parents, leaders in family life, as educators in schools, or as colleagues in the workplace.  Psychological safety and connection is where we are made to be – but it is not an entitlement, it is something we are able to foster and grow by developing relationship skills, and skills of self-awareness and self-regulation.

WE move in and out of secure attachments as life unfolds and as we are placed in different social situations. We may experience secure attachment at home, but move into insecure attachment in a workplace where psychological safety is low, where people feel they are unable to say no, and where it feels dangerous to be different, have questions, speak to concerns and needs.

Those ways of being in the workplace can be contagious and eroding relationships and resilience in teams which become more divided, and people operate in defensive ways. I certainly see this in mediation work with schools and organisations.

In family life, the ability to support our children as they grow into and through their teens, to model effective experiences of rupture and repair, and build their skills of navigating rupture and repair are essential to learning the life skills that will give them sustaining relationships at work, in rest, and at play. So that they can thrive and perform at their authentic best.

It is like the Japanese art of Kinsugi. Making special, strong, and beautiful, the fault lines and growth that will emerge in this glorious imperfection of our human lives, together.

Related Reading:

  • The Power of Discord: why the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building intimacy, resilience, and trust. Dr Ed Tronick, and Dr Claudia M. Gold.
  • Self-Compassion – The proven power of being kind to yourself. By Dr Kristen Neff
  • Daring Greatly: How the courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
  • Getting to Zero: How to work through conflict in your high-stakes relationships. Jayson Gaddis
  • Making Great Relationships: Simple practices for solving conflicts, building connection, and fostering love. Rick Hanson.

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