“The nine most important words in any relationship:
I love you. I hear you. Please forgive me.” 

Most parents find themselves insisting that their child apologize to a sibling, friend, or adult on a regular basis. And yet it can feel awkward to apologize to our children, and many of us avoid it.

We sometimes justify this by saying that an apology will lessen the child's respect for us. But just the opposite is true. Don't you have more respect for others when they own up to their mistakes and try to make things better? Apologizing for your own off-track behavior doesn't mean you don't correct your child when necessary. He'll still know who's boss.

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

I think the sad truth is that most of us feel uncomfortable apologizing. Not just because we have to admit we made a mistake, but because it brings up feelings of shame for us, since we remember being forced to apologize as children.

But what does a child learn when a parent avoids apologies?

  • Apologizing means you've done something bad, or you are bad. There's a feeling of shame attached.
  • It's okay to damage a relationship and not acknowledge it, or try to repair it.
  • When you apologize, you lose status. 
  • My parents always make me say "Sorry" to my siblings, but I won't do it unless I'm forced to. 

Wouldn't it be better to teach these lessons, which your child learns when you model apologies?

  • We all sometimes make mistakes and we can try to make things better. 
  • We all sometimes hurt others. It's important to acknowledge when we do that and make amends. 
  • When you apologize, the other person feels better about you. 
  • I like to wait until I'm ready, but after that I don't mind apologizing, because we all end up feeling better.

So when should you apologize to your child, and what should you say? 

1. Apologize easily and often, including for small "Oops" moments that are not a big deal, but just part of life. "Oops! Sorry I interrupted you." Any time you act in a way that you wouldn't want your child to act is a time when you need to consider apologizing. Obviously, don't apologize for setting appropriate limits. But it's our job to manage our own emotions, no matter what our child does. 

2. If your child thinks it's a big deal, acknowledge that, even if you don't think it is. "I told you I would get you a new notebook when I went to the store, and then I completely forgot. I'm so sorry. I know you were counting on me to come home with the notebook."

3. Describe what happened. "We were all so upset, right? You were yelling. Then I started yelling. And you started crying. I'm sorry if I scared you. I was very upset, but it's my job to manage my own emotions. Yelling is no way to work something out with someone you love."

4. Resist the urge to blame. Many of us start to apologize and then veer into excusing ourselves because the child was in the wrong. Sure, I yelled—but you deserved it! We all know, though, that two wrongs don't make a right. Besides, we're the adult. It's our job to be the role model.

5. It's okay to explain, but don't ruin a good apology by making excuses for your behavior. "I had such a hard day, and I couldn't deal with one more thing going wrong. So I yelled at you. But that's no excuse. No one deserves to be yelled at, ever."

6. Model accountability by taking responsibility for whatever you can in a given situation. "I'm so sorry I wasn't here to help you two work this out." You're not blaming yourself. You are sorry you weren't there. And your taking even a small share of the responsibility will help them step up and apologize themselves. 

7. Give yourself a do-over if appropriate. "Sorry, Sweetie, I didn't mean to snap at you. Let me try that again. Here's what I meant to say..."

8. Make a plan for repair. "Tell you what. We'll stop by the store on the way to school in the morning to get your notebook." This is an essential part of any apology: "What can I do to make this right?"

9. Make a plan for next time. Your child will learn a lot if you ask her what you could do differently next time and discuss it without getting defensive. Then, make a commitment. "Next time I will Stop, Drop and Breathe to calm down." Then just do it. If someone you loved hurt you repeatedly and apologized every time, you'd stop believing the apologies sooner or later. They're only meaningful if you know the person will really try to avoid repeating the behavior. 

10. Ask the child if they're ready to reconcile. This can be as simple as "I hope you'll forgive me." It helps the child make the emotional leap to let go of resentment and reconnect emotionally. Don't force this; children should not feel pressured to "forgive" before they feel ready. Some parents resist this step because they feel they're handing their power to the child, who might withhold forgiveness. But if the child isn't ready to forgive, you want to know that, so you can help them resolve whatever upset they're still holding onto from the interaction. 

Notice there's no shame, no blame. Instead, focus on making things better with your child. It takes courage to admit you were wrong, and to ask for forgiveness. But it makes you a better parent, and it raises healthier children, who value relationships and can take responsibility. Isn't it time we dropped the legacy of shame that gets attached to apologies?

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