3 Pitfalls To Avoid When Apologizing To Your Child

Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry.”

Have ever completely lost it with your kids? You’re not alone.

As parents we’re overstressed and sleep-deprived, strung out from juggling the demands of job and home, and teetering on the edge of sanity as we deal with our children’s worst behavior—toddler meltdowns, fights over the video game controller, texting at the dinner table.

And so, inevitably, we reach the tipping point. We scream at them, we take away privileges, we slam doors. Sometimes we may even say things we wish we hadn’t.

But should you apologize to your child?

Some say, absolutely not. There’s a common (though unwarranted) fear that an apology is an admission of fault or weakness, or that it undercuts our parental authority.

I was raised by parents who never said they were sorry. It didn’t matter what the offense was, whether accidentally punishing the wrong kid or taking a huge bite out of your ice cream cone. In fact, none of the adults in my world—neighbors, teachers, parish priests—seemed capable of admitting they had made a mistake, much less apologizing for it.

Yet every child knows deep down when someone has done a bad thing, including Mom and Dad. When parents insist they can do no wrong, it sets the stage for moral confusion. The child may start to doubt their innate sense of right and wrong. To ignore this is to risk damaging your child’s self-esteem and skewing his or her emerging moral compass.

Conversely, parents who can admit their mistakes have a distinct edge over the “not-sorry” parent. By expressing remorse and offering to make things right, a parent models the very qualities they hope to instill in their child: empathy, honesty, courage, responsibility. The practice fosters trust, too, when the parent values the child’s emotional security as much as their physical safety.

Apologizing to kids doesn’t have to be a big deal. Here some tips on how to do it right.

Face it. Whenever you treat your child in a way you wouldn’t want to be treated—dropping them off late to school, losing control of your emotions, accidentally breaking a cherished object—stop and notice what you’ve done. Remember kids feel injury and injustice much more strongly than adults. Be quick to recognize that what may seem minor to you, such as yelling at them in front of their friends, is a much bigger deal to them. Your apology affirms their dignity and their right, as a human being, to be treated with respect.

Feel it. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, child experts and best-selling co-authors of the parenting book series “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen”, offer this perspective: “How would you feel if your boss did that to you?” It’s true: being disrespected by a more powerful person cuts deep. Stand in your child’s shoes so you can imagine how he or she might be feeling, and your apology will come naturally. Be sure to give them space to express their feelings with tears, anger or both. Unimpeded, kids’ feelings pass quickly—and they are quick to forgive.

Fix it. Be sincere as you make your apology, then do what you can to make things right. “I’m really sorry I forgot to feed your goldfish while you were at camp. I know you must feel terrible that she died, and I feel terrible, too. Would you like to go to the pet store and pick out another one?” This exercise can be surprisingly creative, and you’ll find yourself bonding with your child as you work together to make amends.

Change it. An apology is just empty words if not followed by your resolve to do better. Whether you try out a new parenting technique like 1-2-3 Magic, or set reminders in your phone to feed the goldfish, helping your child become a better human being by working through life’s ups and downs is a big part of raising awesome kids.

When apologizing, watch out for these pitfalls.

Don’t make excuses. Briefly explain if you must, but remember it’s not about you. “I promised to drive you to Max’s house, but once I got on the phone with Grandma, I lost all track of the time. I’m sorry you had to wait so long for me. I’ll keep an eye on the clock next time.”

Don’t guilt trip. Never defend your bad behavior by telling your kid they caused it. You’re the grown-up, with both the maturity and the authority to manage your feelings and the situation. “This morning when the bus drove away without you, I got very angry that we’d both be late. But I’m sorry I yelled at you until you cried.”

Don’t say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This cold and distancing phrase tells your child they are too sensitive, abdicates responsibility and denies their feelings. When you’ve hurt or disappointed your child, let them know they deserve better. If you can’t muster a full-fledged, empathetic apology, just say “I’m sorry,” and leave it at that.

With a little practice, apologizing to your child for your own less-than-stellar moments will become easier. You may even find it draws you closer to your child, which is good for both of you—and the rest of your family, too. Everyone benefits when the people around them demonstrate integrity, humility and concern for the feelings of others. 

Donna Moriarty is a writer, editor and author with a passion for writing, speaking and listening—the most powerful and enduring forms of human connection. She’s written and edited award-winning publications, short fiction and nonfiction, book reviews and a one-act play. Her first book, Not Just Words: How a Good Apology Makes You Braver, Bolder and Better at Life, was published in 2018. Follow her on Twitter @demoriarty. www.donnamoriarty.com



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