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Should Parents Apologize?

Saying "I'm sorry” actually makes parents look strong.

Key points

  • Parents can make mistakes too, especially in the heat of an argument with their child. 
  • The ability for parents to be vulnerable and apologize can strengthen their relationships with their children.
  • It also helps to brainstorm with a child creative ways to avoid repeating the same mistakes in future.

Many parents tell me that they feel overwhelming guilt after yelling at their children. They remember how badly they felt as children when their parents screamed at them and had even sworn to themselves that they would never do this as a parent. I commiserate with these parents by acknowledging that parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. When your child keeps leaving his dirty clothes on the bathroom floor after you have told him for the umpteenth time to put them into the hamper after his showers, it’s hard to stay cool. But yelling frightens children and causes them to feel bad about themselves, so making amends is important.

I always assure parents that there are ways to repair an upsetting interaction with children, even days later. I call it "cleaning up the situation." In a way, the guilt parents feel at these moments is actually positive. It is an internal signal that they need to do something to fix things. It motivates them to take action.

The first step I suggest is apologizing to the child. Historically, parents have been afraid that saying, “I'm sorry,” makes them look weak or takes away their authority. On the contrary, it actually makes parents look strong. It shows that they care enough to take responsibility for their negative actions and make amends. Furthermore, children get the crucial message that their parents do not want to hurt their feelings—they are loved.

It also gives children other important information. They learn that when they are in a relationship, it's very important to take responsibility for their own negative behaviors and find better ways to handle situations in the future. This is key to building a successful relationship.

Once you apologize, talk over the situation with your child and explore alternative ways you both could have interacted. You can invite your child to problem-solve with you by asking, “What could we have done differently?” and offer some suggestions. For instance, you might propose, “Maybe Mommy could have said, ‘I asked you to pick up your clothing after washing up, and you ignored me. Can you please go back and put your things in the hamper.’”

Keep in mind that it takes children endless repetitions to internalize the rules, and they will still make errors from time to time. Calm reminders tend to speed the process. The minute you start getting worked up, things tend to go downhill.

Next, ask your child what she could have done differently and make a suggestion: “Maybe you could have said, “I’m sorry I left my clothing on the floor. I was rushing to see my show. I’ll try to remember next time.” You never know. Children often come up with their own innovative solutions, such as, “I’ll make a sign and put it on the bathroom door to remind me!”

Every time you and your children repair a situation in this way, your close bond is restored. Your child internalizes this way of problem-solving, and it becomes a positive model for the future.

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