Family, Kids & Relationships

Why (and how) you should apologize to your kids

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We all have moments when parenthood feels like it’s filled with frustrations. At some point, it’s normal to snap—no parent responds perfectly to every situation. Maybe you got tired of hearing them whine or of walking into your child’s messy bedroom, or perhaps you were beyond frustrated that they didn’t do their chores (again). There are myriad scenarios that push parents to their limits, but when you make a mistake, experts say it’s important to feel comfortable apologizing to your kids, and to do it sincerely. “It models empathy and shows you take responsibility for your part,” says Miami-based family therapist Tania Paredes, Ph.D., LCSW. 

Some parents might think it seems “weak” or fear they’ll lose respect if they admit to kids they slipped up, but it’s important that children realize no one is above admitting when they’re wrong. “[Some parents] have the idea that if they admit any mistake, they will lose control and the child will jump in and walk all over them,” Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children 2 to 5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success, told Parents magazine. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. “It shows that it is OK to make mistakes because no one is perfect,” Paredes says.  

Benefits of apologizing to kids

In fact, apologizing to your children when called for provides them a blueprint for how to do it right when it’s their turn to say sorry. It also sets boundaries and expectations for your relationship, which is important because while mistakes are inevitable, it’s how we respond to them that counts. Other benefits of apologizing to kids include:

  • Models empathy, honesty, and courage
  • Shows it’s ok to make mistakes—no one is perfect
  • Sets boundaries and expectations for what’s ok (and what isn’t) in your relationship
  • Builds trust and respect, demonstrating that you’ll admit when you’re wrong
  • Fights feelings of shame, anxiety, and confusion (on both sides!)
  • Teaches kids how to reflect and take responsibility
  • Allows kids to learn how to forgive
  • Validates your child’s feelings

In honor of this year’s World Forgiveness Day, here are seven tips to keep in mind the next time you owe your child an apology:

Keep the “buts” out of it. 

“But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse, says Harriet Lerner Ph.D. of Psychology Today. For example, it might be tempting to say, “I’m sorry I yelled, but your room is always so messy!” Instead, try something like, “I’m sorry I overreacted and yelled about the mess. I shouldn’t have done that. Next time I’ll try not to raise my voice.” Note there’s no “but” to signal it was the child who made the mess—because the apology is about how your behavior was wrong, not about what caused you to behave that way. Conflating the two can make a good apology go wrong. 

Keep the focus on you.

It’s easy to switch the attention to how your child may have responded or who started a debate in the first place, especially if it wasn’t you. But it’s not about them feeling hurt or upset, it’s about whatever you said or did that was wrong. For example, “I’m sorry I forgot to pick you up on time. I’ll do a better job of watching the clock.” Even though the child may have felt lonely or even a tad abandoned by your tardiness, try to keep the focus on your behavior to avoid complicating or escalating the matter. “When you apologize, you diffuse the blame game,” Paredes says. “It’s no longer about who did what and why but about making amends and finding a solution.”

Don’t get bogged down with details or rehash what happened. 

Stick to your genuine feelings of regret and apology, accept responsibility, and pledge to do better. Apologies can be that simple.

That said, it’s OK to explain why something happened. 

Letting your kids know you had a bad day, were stressed about a recent work project, or you’re simply forgetful sometimes shows them it’s OK to make mistakes, so long as you own it. But even more importantly, it humanizes you in their eyes. “Doing so can help model explanation done right,” says Dr. Paredes. “For example you can say, ‘I had a hard day at work. And then you had a hard time with bath time and I got frustrated, so I yelled at you. But that’s no excuse. No one deserves to be yelled at. I’m sorry.’”

Sometimes you need to give them space in addition to the apology. 

It’s hard for everyone to go back to feeling great in a snap. Leave room for your child to feel sour for a bit until the overall situation dissipates.

It’s also OK to take a timeout for yourself. 

We associate timeouts with our kids, but sometimes adults need to step away, gather our thoughts, and calm down a bit. It’s OK to make that part of your apology. Try saying, “I’m sorry. I should have handled that better. I’m going to take a timeout for a few minutes so I can reset my feelings.”

Offer a fix if appropriate. 

You can’t always mend a broken toy you accidentally broke, but you can offer to play a favorite board game together or take a walk to the park as a way to make your child feel better. Think of it as a token of your sincerity and try to keep the focus of the fix on something you know they love, like a favorite toy or pastime. Doing so shows them that it’s important to show a sincere effort to help the other person feel better, however small.

Need help finding ways to rephrase your apologies? Try modifying these examples to fit your situation:

Nobody wants to blow up at their kids, but even more important is what you teach them by how you set things right again. Over time true apologies will bring you closer to your child—and that’s what matters most!

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.