“I’m sorry.” Two simple words that are often the most difficult to say, especially to our children. Apologizing to our children is not something that comes naturally to many of us. Some parents may feel that, as an authority figure, apologizing to their children could be seen as a sign of weakness. Perhaps apologizing makes us lose our authority status in the family. On top of this, apologizing is uncomfortable. It means admitting that we made a mistake. At a fundamental level, apologizing requires humility and vulnerability. These qualities may not be ones that we feel comfortable expressing to our children.

Despite our trepidations about apologizing, research and psychologists tell us that it is a crucial aspect of our parent–child relationships. In families, as with any relationship, conflict and disagreements happen. It does not mean your family is “dysfunctional;” in fact, it might be a key component in building a strong bond within your family. The conflict-repair cycle is a process that can further solidify your family relationships. Let’s delve into the details of why we should apologize to our children and how to get started.

Why Should We Apologize?

The concept of apologizing to our children represents an example of perhaps the most powerful parenting tool we have⏤modeling. Most of us have had the experience where our child does something wrong to a sibling or friends, like hitting or teasing. Commonly, we ask them to apologize. Thus, our model of apologizing to our own children sends a powerful message about its importance. Besides just modeling the simple act of apologizing, our apologies also model other, deeper emotional lessons. For example, recognizing the need to apologize implies that you have empathy for your child’s feelings. This is a key emotional skill that kids develop and continue to refine during childhood. Similarly, in apologizing, you are also illustrating the ability to take responsibility for your actions. As many of us know first-hand with our children, this can sometimes be a difficult emotional skill for children to learn. By apologizing, you are modeling it first-hand. 

When we apologize to our children, it also puts them in a position of being able (and hopefully willing) to forgive us. This, too, is a valuable emotional skill that children need practice with to develop. Research shows that children (and adults) who can forgive others for wrongdoings tend to have greater psychological well-being. Thus, by apologizing, we are offering our children an opportunity to be part of the relationship repair process, which makes us all feel better.

In addition to modeling the behavior we want to see in our children, studies show that parents who apologize to their children have a more secure attachment relationship with them. It’s not hard to see why this might be the case. In order to apologize to your child, you must not only be attuned to their emotions, but  also be willing to overcome the discomfort and potential shame or guilt associated with the action.This illustrates a deep care and sensitivity to the child’s needs. Ultimately, the act of apologizing helps repair any conflicts or ruptures in the relationship, thus ensuring a stronger bond.

How to Effectively Apologize to Children?

The value of apologizing is clear. Both our relationship with our child and their emotional development benefit when we apologize. For these benefits to take hold, however, a simple one-word apology is probably not sufficient. Learning to apologize effectively so that children absorb the message we are attempting to model is key. Here are a few tips to help you apologize in a meaningful way:

  • Acknowledge: This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of a meaningful apology⏤specifically acknowledging where you went wrong. With children, this might mean acknowledging an event that you perceive to be “no big deal.” Maybe you called their favorite doll by the wrong name or described their favorite game as “silly.” These seem like tiny issues to us, but to some children, they may seem like a big deal. Acknowledging the hurt or upset caused by your actions is key. 
    • A key point with acknowledgement is to try to avoid the word “but” afterward. For example, if you say, “I’m sorry that my words made you sad, but you were acting disrespectfully,” this fails to fully acknowledge the wrongdoing in the situation. The word “but” acts like an eraser to dissolve all the words before it. Truly acknowledging a mistake means doing so with sincerity and without limiting words like “but.”
  • Keep it Simple: Sometimes, when we begin to apologize, we end up rehashing the entire scenario again. This is unnecessary for an effective apology and might even cause you (and your child) to become distracted. Try to stick to simple language and just describe what happened. Something like, “I yelled at you earlier, and that was wrong. I am very sorry.” Children don’t need a lengthy explanation of the situation; all they need to know is that you are sorry for what you did.
  • Make Amends: As with all apologies, a key aspect of the process includes attempting to make amends in some way. This is the action step of the apology. This step can sometimes be challenging if the mistake involves hurtful words or yelling. Unfortunately, we cannot take back the words that were said. However, we can explain a concrete plan to our children to ensure that it won’t happen again. For example, “I’m going to give myself a time-out if I feel upset next time so that I don’t yell.” In the case of a more tangible mistake, like a broken item, we can offer to replace the damaged possession. 

Perhaps more than anything, apologizing to children teaches them that a certain level of disagreement or conflict within families is normal and repairable. In an effort to avoid all conflict, we might inadvertently model for children the need to hide their real feelings. By modeling apologies and repair, we can help children understand that our relationships are resilient and that even when conflicts occur, we can work through them and maintain our strong bond.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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