Should Parents Apologize To Their Kids?

Should parents apologize to their kids? - Header Image

Key Points:

  • When you avoid apologies, you kids assume that apologies must be shameful and relationships aren’t worth repairing
  • You should apologize anytime your behaviour hurts your child, or you model incorrect behaviour
  • When you do apologize, kids understand we are all imperfect, but that we should take responsibility for our mistakes and move forward
  • When apologizing, you should acknowledge how you made them feel, take responsibility, say sorry and then ask how you can make it up to them
  • Never blame your child for your mistake or make excuses for your behaviour when you are apologizing

Everyone makes mistakes. When your child makes a mistake that hurts a sibling, friend, or even yourself, you encourage them to apologize for it.

But what about when your words or actions as a parent have hurt your own child. Do you tend to push the issue aside, unsure whether to apologize or not?

In order to set a good example, and to foster a deeper bond, parents should always apologize to their children if they have been responsible for upsetting them.

Why parents tend not to apologize

Parents have many reasons up their sleeve to justify not apologizing to their kids. At a base level, it can be uncomfortable to give an apology to anyone, and there seems to be added discomfort when that someone is our child.

Respect is a big reason why parents avoid apologizing. Have you ever been worried that by saying sorry to your child, they will lose respect for you and undercut your authority? After all, parents are always supposed to be right, right?

Some people may also think it is a sign of weakness to say sorry, when parents are always supposed to present a strong front.

But, the truth is, even very “ young children appreciate the power of the very simple phrase: I’m sorry.”

What kids learn when parents avoid apologizing

When you don’t say sorry to your child, they learn a few things about apologies that will not serve them well in future.

  1. Apologies must be tied to shame, if they are something to be avoided
  2. Relationships aren’t important enough to try and repair
  3. Giving an apology means you also lose status
  4. Apologies should only be given if you are forced to do so

These are certainly not things you want your child to learn. So, let’s look at when and how to apologize.

When parents should apologize

Anytime your behaviour hurts your child, you should apologize. But, also anytime you model behaviour that you don’t want your child replicating, you should apologize.

If you don’t want your child interrupting you, but then you interrupt them , you should say sorry. Otherwise it looks like you expect them to follow rules that you don’t follow yourself (note that setting reasonable limits and boundaries is a completely different situation).

If your child is hurt by something that you don’t think is a big deal, you should still say sorry . Otherwise you are teaching them that what matters to them does not matter to you.

What kids learn when parents do apologize

A big lesson to be learned here is that nobody is perfect. Everyone has shortcomings , and when you apologize and acknowledge this, it sets children up to recognise their own.

There are two ways we learn about failure. One is by experiencing it ourselves. The other is to watch someone we care about experience it and see how they react. When parents apologize to their kids, it teaches them that it’s good to take responsibility for your mistakes and move forward.

Relationships are important, so when we hurt someone we should make amends . Making amends helps the other person feel better about you. In fact, “children as young as age four also view apologetic transgressors as nicer and more remorseful than unapologetic transgressors.”

Apologizing to your child also makes you feel better about you and move on from your mistake. It’s always worth trying to make an uncomfortable situation better.

Kids learn important qualities like empathy, honesty, responsibility, courage and trust when you demonstrate these for them. Seeing you apologize also helps their emotional regulation skills develop.

How parents should apologize

In the first part of your apology, you should touch on the effect your behaviour had on your child. Acknowledge that you can see they are upset or scared. You may do this by giving a short summary of what just happened, but be sure to place emphasis on how it affected your child.

Next take responsibility for your actions and actually say sorry. You could say “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, I’m sorry” for example.

Finally, make a plan for repairing what went wrong - whether that’s for picking up the school project items that you forgot, or finding ways to remind yourself not to yell. After all, one of the most important parts of learning from mistakes is trying not to repeat them.

In one study, children ranging from kindergarten age to 7th grade, were required to judge actors who committed transgressions and then apologized for their transgression by one of three apologies which had varying levels of elaborateness. The study found that children preferred “actors apologize in a more complete manner that not only admitted regret but also offered to help or compensate the victim.”

If you feel it’s more appropriate than coming up with a plan to repair what went wrong, you could instead ask “ what can I do to make it up to you? ” Then pause and listen carefully, giving your child the opportunity to process your apology and the attempt you have made at amends.

What is most important is that parents should always be sincere and respectful when apologizing. A half-hearted or sarcastic apology isn’t going to help anyone in this situation.

What are the big no-no’s when apologizing

It’s crucial that you never lay blame on your child when you are saying sorry. You also shouldn’t make excuses for your behaviour as this undermines your apology and will negate any of the benefits of saying sorry. If you make excuses, your child is left feeling as though the situation was their fault. You want your child to learn that poor behaviour can never be excused away.

Don’t make passive-aggressive comments like “ I’m sorry you feel that way ”. That isn’t a real apology and just tells your child you believe they are oversensitive.

At the end of the day, you should put your own fears aside about looking weak or relinquishing control and understand that giving a well-meaning apology to your kids is an act of love.