Relationship Repair

Relationship Repair

by: Dr. Kirk Austin

It seemed that every time Johnny returned from visiting his mother he would have an “off day”. He had spent the last year in a foster home because his mother was unable to care for him. Her mental health and addiction issues had provided the backdrop of their relationship over the last ten years. His removal from his mother was hard for him. Despite her struggles, he cared for her. She was the only mother he had.

The foster home he had moved to was exceptional. They were caring, kind, structured and encouraging. Yet inevitably, when Johnny would return from a visit with his mother his emotions seemed elevated and his behaviors would escalate quickly. He would yell, scream and break things in his room or around the house. When other kids were around, he would pick fights or aggravate them. The foster parents were looking for answers: “How could they help Jonny?”

This scenario is common among the families that CTR – Complex Trauma Resources works with. Children in foster care typically become conflicted and escalate quickly after visiting a biological parent that they no longer live with. Often, they do not know what to do with the emotions they are feeling (sadness, anger, guilt, shame, etc) or the behaviors that are right at the surface (tears, yelling, violence, etc). And if caregivers don’t understand the complexity of complex trauma they can feel powerless to help.

One helpful tool for parents that has recently emerged from Emotionally Focused Family Therapy is called Relationship Repair. Building on the power of empathy, the technique enters the story at the level of the child’s emotions and seeks to explore, validate and reduce the emotional triggers embedded within the scenario.

Five essential ingredients for Relationship Repair are:

1. Acknowledge the impact of the injury and how it has influenced the child.

“I know it has been hard for you to be away from your mother. You really care for her and I can see that. It must be hard seeing her and then coming back here to us.”

 2. Express appreciation for “what it must have been like” for both the event and the pain it has caused .

The point is to label and validate their experience.  “It must have been hard seeing her struggle and not be able to help her. You must still want to help her. It must be hard to feel powerless, or know that you’re safe when she is struggling.”

3. Apologize and communicate authentic remorse.

“I am so sorry that you have to feel this way.  It must be hard. I’m sorry.”

4. State what could have been done instead. Or state what can be done moving forward.

“We should have done a better job supporting you. We should have tried to help more. We should have seen what you needed and stepped in earlier.”

5. Wait for the “blast/ denial”.

The blast occurs after you say sorry and the child brings up other issues or continues to vent. This reaction may make an adult feel like their apology didn’t work to de-escalate the situation. However, it signals the opposite; that the child feels heard. It means that they trust that you have validated their pain and want to continue. Resist the urge to push back with, “I said I was sorry!”.

Denial occurs when the child denies having emotion or difficulties with their story. An example is where the child reports “It wasn’t that bad”, or “I’m fine, leave me alone”.  A response to the blast or denial in this case is:  “Still, I do feel for you. It’s my role to help you when I can. I’m glad you’re here.”

The foster parents initially learned Relationship Repair techniques and slowly began using them. Initially it felt awkward, but they reported that it began to feel more natural with some practice. They noted that Johnny’s behavior didn’t stop right away, but that over time it began to soften. When they offered an acknowledgement or appreciation for his struggle, he would use denial and report that, “It wasn’t that bad”.  Still, they continued in their support each time he would return from a visit.  “I’m really glad you’re back” and “I’m sorry your mom wasn’t doing well this weekend.” Eventually Johnny’s denials became, “Thank you’s” and his blow ups became less intense and less frequent.


1. #Adapted from Relationship Repair

About the author

Dr. Kirk Austin, Ph.D., RCC, CCI Coach

Dr. Kirk Austin is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and member of our CTR Clinical team. To learn more about him click here.

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