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When Not to Apologize to Your Child

Hint: It's when you have done nothing wrong.

Key points

  • Apologizing to kids is very important. It teaches them about taking responsibility for their actions.
  • Apologizing to children when you have done nothing wrong, when they are in distress and blaming you for their upset, is not helpful.
  • When you take responsibility for life's inevitable frustrations and disappointments, you are not helping a child learn to be flexible.

Apologizing to your child when you have reacted harshly to them is very important—for your child, and for you. You are providing a powerful model for taking responsibility for one's actions. It also means that you are willing to step back, reflect, and work on your own self-regulation—one of the most necessary and greatest assets that will strengthen your loving and secure attachment to your child.

But, in my practice, I often see parents apologizing to children when they have done nothing wrong. A child accuses his mom of playing the game "wrong," meaning he did not like the outcome and lost. Or Dad wasn't first in line at carpool pickup. Or Mom made the pancake the "wrong" way; the shape isn't right. It's not a perfect circle.

In these moments, children are distressed because something doesn't happen the way they expect or want. They have very fixed ideas about the way things should be, and when their expectations are not met, they fall apart. One 2-year-old flipped out when her mother wore her hair up. She would insist her mom take it down, which her mom acquiesced to, to relieve the stress.

As unreasonable as these reactions/demands may seem, that is your child's experience in that moment and you want to show all the empathy in the world for how hard it is for them when they can't control everything. ⁠

But when you apologize in these situations, it conveys to your child that, indeed, they have been wronged; that the problem lies with you (or someone else, or just the whole world) because you haven't given them what (they perceive) they need.⁠ This isn't helpful to children because it just increases their inflexibility and gives them the false notion that:⁠ ⁠

  1. This is the way the world works. When something happens that you don't like, someone will make it all better, which is just not the case. (If a teacher hands a child a sandwich that is cut on the "wrong" diagonal, she is not going to give the child a new sandwich.)⁠ ⁠
  2. You don't believe they can learn to be more flexible and resilient; you believe that they need someone else to always solve their problems. ⁠ ⁠

So instead of, "Sorry sweetie, I'll put my hair down," you might say: "I know you like it better when Mom's hair is down. But it's my hair so I get to choose what's most comfortable for me. You'll see that I am still the same mommy no matter the style of my hair."⁠ ⁠

Instead of, "Sorry I didn't get the pancake right" (and rushing to make a new one), you might say: "I see you don't like the way the pancake looks. I know it feels uncomfortable when something doesn't look exactly the way you like or expect, but it has the same taste. So you can cut it up and reshape it however you like if that makes you more comfortable eating it. Or you don't have to eat it. You decide."⁠ ⁠

Approaching these moments in this way is what children need because:

  1. It provides validation for their emotional experience. It does not involve trying to talk them out of their feelings—rarely a helpful strategy. That usually leads to kids digging in their heels further to push and prove their point.
  2. It establishes limits, lovingly, that scaffold flexibility and adaptation.

The world does not adapt to us; we have to learn to adapt to the world.

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