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How to Apologize to Your Child

Learning how to apologize to your child requires a paradigm shift for many parents. As children, many of us failed to receive apologies from authority figures when they wronged us. Only recently has our culture become one in which people in power freely apologize. Unfortunately, apologies so easily given are often hollow.

Of course, most of us were taught to apologize as children. We said we were sorry when we disobeyed our parents or teachers. We were made to apologize to classmates or friends when we hurt them. It’s likely that we mastered the peer-to-peer apology.

However, unless we had parents or teachers who modeled a proper superior-to-subordinate apology, we probably never learned how, when, and why to apologize to a child.

I know from experience how humbling it is for a parent to apologize to her children. It’s not a situation I take lightly. So, let’s talk about apologizing to our children, why it’s important, and when and how to do it.

But first, pin this long article in case you can’t finish it now or need it for later reference.

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Should You Apologize to Your Child?

First things first, right?  Maybe you don’t believe you should apologize to your children. That was a common belief among a generation of parents. The idea goes that the parent is always right, even if he or she is wrong.

It’s true that there are situations in which we need our children to take us at our word and not question us. Sometimes their safety depends on it!  Some parents believe if they admit to being wrong, the child might to lose trust in them and feel unsafe in a big and scary world.  Other parents feel if they apologize when they’re wrong their children might not take discipline seriously in the future. Fortunately, neither worry holds true.

Children Trust Honest Parents

See, our children will trust us more when we’re honest with them. Their empathy grows when they realize that even mom and dad make mistakes.  They’ll see that we’re emotionally mature enough to admit our mistakes and to ask for forgiveness.  When we apologize to our children we’re modeling for them how to maintain relationships and prevent unnecessary drama.

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Don’t Make Everything a Big Deal

Your children will take you seriously if you behave seriously when the situation requires seriousness. (Seriously!)  If you’re a permissive parent your children aren’t ever going to take you seriously.  If you’re an authoritarian parent your children aren’t going to take you seriously because you make everything into something serious.

For example, when my children were preschoolers, I used a completely different tone of voice to tell them to clean their rooms than I did when I told them to freeze in a parking lot.  They knew the difference and they knew that one tone of voice was directly related to their safety and the other was a request with which they needed to comply, but not urgently.

My children easily recognized the difference between an important safety-related command and a gentle, but authoritative request for compliance.

For further reference, read my articles Is Gentle Parenting Permissive Parenting and Is Gentle Discipline Always Gentle?

When Should You Apologize to Your Child?

The answer to this question may seem obvious, but I’m not sure it actually is.  When I encourage parents to apologize to their children, I refer to meaningful apologies and not a string of “I’m sorry-s” throughout the day.

For instance, when you blame your child for something he didn’t do and later you find out the truth, you should apologize.  On the other hand, when your child gets upset because you asked her to clean her room and she doesn’t want to, you should not apologize for the request or for her big feelings about it.

Don’t Apologize to Your Child For Good Parenting

Apologizing for correctly disciplining (teaching) your child is bad parenting.  It shows that you feel guilty for telling your child to do things that they need to do.  It makes you look weak and wishy-washy.

For example, if you feel guilty for telling your child to clean her room, you need to decide why you feel guilty and if you will continue to make that request.  Always have a good reason for discipline and cut out any discipline that you don’t have a reason for using. You should understand why a particular request is important for your child’s well-being.  Once you know that, you can make the request in a confident manner with no need for apologies.

Don’t apologize for the behavior of others.  For example, you didn’t call your son a name – his brother did!  Work with his brother to help him make amends for his hurtful behavior.  Don’t apologize for him because you don’t want to deal with helping him make amends.

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Here are some situations for which you should apologize to your children:

1.  When you yell at them or punish them harshly. (How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids)
2.  When you shame or embarrass them.
3.  When you blame them for something they didn’t do.
4.  When lose your temper or behave in an overly emotional manner.
5.  When they see you behave in a rude way toward others.
6.  When you don’t keep your word.

How to Apologize to Your Child

If you’ve never done it before, figuring out how to apologize to your child may seem daunting.  It requires humility, for certain, and your child might not always accept your apology.

Here are some tips for how to apologize to your child.

Apologize When You’re Calm

Apologize only after you and your child have cooled down.  Don’t try to apologize to your child when he or she is still upset.

Keep it Simple

Keep it short and simple.  You don’t have to explain everything you were thinking when you did the wrong thing.  Let your child know you were wrong, that you now see you were wrong, and that you want to apologize for what you did or said.

Don’t Negate Your Apology

Do not negate your apology with a “but”!  This one is important.  Don’t say, “I’m sorry for yelling at you, but you should have cleaned your room.”  Your child is NOT responsible for your bad behavior – even if it was something they did that you reacted to.  You’re responsible for your own words and your own behavior just as you are teaching them to be responsible for their words and behavior.

Make Amends if Possible

Try to make amends.  Sometimes when we mess up in life, the problem can’t be fixed, but trying to find a way to make up for the mistake is a good idea.

Remember that unless you wrongly took something away from your child, you don’t owe your child anything other than your apology and your promise to refrain from the behavior in the future.  But, sometimes, say, a trip for ice cream, might help to repair the relationship that was damaged when you behaved badly.  Buying your child a new video game probably won’t help repair a relationship unless you play it together. Don’t let your child misuse your apology as a bargaining chip for material possessions.

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Let it Go

Once you’ve apologized and made amends, let it go.  Don’t allow your child to drag it out or hold it over your head.  Set a good example by not holding your child’s misdeeds over him or her.  Once the apology is made, it’s done. Move on.

Always Focus on Relationship First

Sometimes I feel like a broken record with my standard advice to always put relationship quality first. It’s the truth, though, that if you keep your focus on maintaining a good relationship with your child you’ll usually navigate in the right direction when parenting.

I repeat my guiding mantra “Relationship First” all the time. When I fail to put relationship first my parenting choices become more likely to require an apology.

Apologizing to your child is a healthy way to maintain a relationship and to teach your child how to treat others when he or she has wronged them or made a mistake.  Remember that our children model what we do more than what we say.


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