Everyone makes mistakes, but when parents mess up in relation to their children, it can be hard to own up to their failures.
“As parents, we may feel uncomfortable about apologizing to our kids,” said Genevieve von Lob, a clinical psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child.” “We may fear that we’ll lose our authority as parents if we say we’re sorry, and that our children might lose respect for us, and even start using our apology against us.”
She emphasized, however, that the exact opposite is true.
“Your kids will have more respect for you if you’re able to show that you have humility and can own up to your faults,” von Lob explained. “Apologies show them that we’re also imperfect human beings who make mistakes, but that the important thing is that we can have the courage to admit that we were wrong, and ask for forgiveness.”
But what’s the best way to go about apologizing to your children ? Below, von Lob and other experts share their advice.
“Think how you like to get an apology ― certainly not a perfunctory ‘sorry,’” said Susan G. Groner, author, podcaster and founder of The Parenting Mentor. “The more authentic, the better. Say something like, ‘I’ve been thinking about what I said to you earlier, and I didn’t communicate well at all. I was stressed, and I took it out on you. I’m really sorry for that. I’m going to work on ways to reduce my stress.’”
The last part shows you’re committed to improving. Resist the urge to use the word “but,” which can cast doubt on the sincerity of your apology.
“It’s good to be specific about what it is you are apologizing for, acknowledge how whatever it was that you did made them feel, if they’ve shared that with you or if you have a guess, and share how you might approach things differently going forward,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and chief medical officer at BeMe.
“As parents, we need to take a few slow deep breaths to find the calm place within ourselves so that we can offer our apology from a genuine, heart-centered place,” von Lob said.
Taking the time to calm down allows parents to think about what they want to say and refrain from pointing fingers or making excuses in the heat of the moment.
“Speak to your child at eye level in a calm and collected manner,” recommended mental health expert and author John Delony. “Sometimes I have to bend down or take a knee when I’m apologizing to my six-year-old daughter.”
Talk about emotions.
“Understand that kids have feelings disproportionate to the event,” Delony said. “It can be a huge deal to a child if you told them you’d play a game of Candyland with them, but you missed it because a phone call with an important client ran long.”
Don’t minimize your child’s pain and don’t simply apologize to keep the peace. Try to see the situation through their eyes, take responsibility for the way your actions negatively affected them, and acknowledge that they feel upset, hurt or disappointed.
“When a parent hurts a child or acts in a way that is incongruent with the values of the home, the child feels ― and internalizes ― the hurt,” Delony said. “Kids make the pain in their lives their fault. This creates deep shame in a child who is trying to shoulder responsibility for the emotional regulation of the adults in their lives.”
When parents address their role in the hurt, their child can cut off that unhealthy cycle of self-blame and associate their pain with external factors. It’s also a good opportunity for parents to talk about their own emotions.
“We can own our feelings and let our children know why we felt frustrated and angry, and that all our feelings are healthy and legitimate, but that it was not OK to start yelling, say unkind words or slam doors,” von Lob explained.
Discuss solutions and improvements.
Don’t stop at saying sorry and acknowledging what happened.
“Follow up with the changes that you’re going to work on to not repeat the same mistake,” said clinical psychologist and author Jenny Yip. “Ideally, that’s what we’re trying to teach our children. You can keep saying ‘sorry,’ but if there’s no action behind the apology, then your ‘sorry’ is meaningless. You want to role model the action steps that you’re going to take to resolve the issue.”
Talk about the ways you’re using this situation as an opportunity to learn and improve. This next step can also be an opportunity to bond more with your child.
“We can even ask our children if they have any ideas or solutions and make a commitment to them that we’re doing our best to remember to take a pause and take a few slow, deep breaths,” von Lob said. “Finally, we can ask our children for forgiveness. This could be as simple as asking ‘do you forgive me?’ or ‘are we ready for a hug?’ But it’s important not to force our children to forgive us before they are ready, and we must give them the time they need.”
Remember, you’re modeling good behavior.
Kids look to their parents as examples of how to behave and interact with the world.
“When parents apologize to their children, not only is it kind, empathetic and validating, but most importantly, it is role modeling,” Groner said. “When parents apologize, we are saying ‘Hey! I make mistakes. I don’t always do the right thing. I’m not perfect.’ In a way, we are communicating to our children that it’s OK for them to do the same.”
Apologizing with grace and humility shows kids how to take ownership and accountability for their mistakes and be a good friend or family member.
“When as parents we apologize to our children, we demonstrate that they too have real thoughts, feelings and needs, and that no one is above the concept of apologizing to another when they’ve made a mistake,” Chaudhary said. “This is especially important for kids to see in their teen years, as they start to explore their own identities and discover who they are, and how they want to show up in the world.”
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
“In my household, I apologize to my kids. I let my kids know that they can always talk to me about anything,” Yip said.
She hopes this approach means her children will feel comfortable coming to talk to her about their missteps as they grow older.
“If you’ve role modeled that it’s not OK to talk about mistakes and apologize, then why would they feel they can confide in you and have a safe space to talk?”
“The take home message here for parents and caregivers is this: It’s OK to be a little vulnerable with your kids and teens,” Chaudhary added. “They don’t need to see you as superheroes. They need to see you as trusted adults who love them and are there for them and can recognize and acknowledge their own mistakes.”
Refrain from over-apologizing.
Be mindful about when you apologize and if the situation calls for it.
“I’ve found that women seem to be apologizing all the time ― and for things they don’t need to apologize for,” Groner said. “And so moms tend to do the same to their children.”
Instead of saying things like, “I’m sorry it’s raining and your game was cancelled,” she suggested going with, “It stinks that your game was cancelled. I can see you’re really disappointed.”
If you didn’t make your child feel upset or disappointed, don’t apologize for it by saying, “I’m sorry you’re upset.”
“Validate the feeling instead,” Groner advised. “Something along the lines of ‘It looks like you’re pretty upset. I can understand that.’”