Apologizing to our children models accountability

Parents often ask their children to apologize to others. “Say you’re sorry for taking your sister’s toy without asking,” or “Apologize to your friend for calling him a mean word,” for example.

When it comes to apologizing to our children, some parents may feel uncomfortable. We might think that our children will lose respect for us because we made a mistake. Or maybe we associate apologies with feelings of shame or being deficient, and we want to maintain our parental authority and always be “right.”

But when we avoid apologizing to our children, we teach them that we should feel ashamed or embarrassed when we say we are sorry. Perhaps even worse, we show them that it’s okay to damage a relationship and move on without trying to repair the damage.

However, apologizing doesn’t communicate weakness, it sets a good example.

“As role models for our children, we should demonstrate accountability,” says Dr. Alison Steier, director of Mental Health Services and the Harris Institute at Southwest Human Development. “Conflicts and misunderstandings are bound to happen in any relationship. A sincere, thoughtful apology actually strengthens the relationship.”

When we apologize to our children, we teach them accountability, the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions. Accountability is essential to learning from our mistakes and building stronger relationships.

Steier says, “Apologizing lets children know that everyone makes mistakes. What’s important is that we recognize our mistakes and make amends.”

So, how do you apologize to your child?

  • Apologize for behavior you wouldn’t want your child to copy. If you yell at your child for not eating their vegetables, they’ll learn that it’s okay to yell at people who don’t do what they want. By apologizing to them, they’ll know that don’t deserve to be yelled at and you can try to come to an understanding about eating vegetables.
  • Apologize if you hurt their feelings, even if you think there’s no reason to be upset. Sure, the stick you just accidentally stepped on seems pretty unremarkable. But to your distraught toddler, that was Mr. Stick, and he’s not so easily replaceable. Saying you’re sorry shows that you care about your child’s feelings, even if you don’t entirely understand those feelings. Empathy is a valuable trait to foster.
  • Don’t blame others or make excuses. An apology doesn’t repair hurt feelings if it leads to turning the blame around or making excuses to sidestep of responsibility. Research suggests that the single most important element of an apology is the acknowledgment of responsibility—no ifs, ands or buts.
  • Debrief the situation. Go over what caused your child to feel hurt, and see if you can make it up to them or find a positive way to resolve the situation.
  • Ask your child if they forgive you. If you’ve made amends, you’ll have shown them how apologizing can help strengthen their relationships with others. Keep in mind that your child may not be ready to forgive you right away. You are inviting forgiveness, not demanding it. If they say no, you might offer to check back in with them later when their “feelings of being mad may have become a little smaller.”

All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care.  Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article.  You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance.  Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.