Every relationship has conflict. The question is how we handle those conflicts—so they build walls between us, or so they bring us closer? Our goal with our children is to model how to repair those inevitable relationship ruptures in ways that strengthen our bond with them.
What is a relationship rupture? When things get tense in your house and you snap at your child, or when your child gets very angry, that’s a relationship rupture. Saying “no” to your child is a tiny relationship rupture, most of the time. Sometimes it’s a big rupture if it comes on the heels of other disappointments for your child, or if they have a big backpack full of emotions that are ready to spill out, so your “no” becomes the straw that breaks the emotional backpack.
All parents sometimes find themselves saying exactly the wrong things, or they simply get so angry that they lose it and then later feel terrible, and they want to reconnect with their child. In those times when you feel bad about how you’ve acted, how do you reconnect? Start by apologizing.
All parents sometimes find themselves saying exactly the wrong things. In those times when you feel bad about how you’ve acted, how do you reconnect? Start by apologizing. @DrLauraMarkham (Click to Tweet!)
How (and when) to apologize to your child
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?
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.
No wonder kids won’t apologize to their siblings unless we force them! 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.
Apologizing still may not feel easy for your child. But if you “normalize” apologizing and let your child decide when she’s ready to do it, you’ll find she’s much less resistant, and even begins to take the initiative because she enjoys the feeling of redemption.
So when should you apologize to your child, and what should you say?
- 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 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, so apologizing when we “lose it” is essential, unless we want our child to copy our “tantrums.”
- Describe what happened and express your regret. “We were all so upset, right? You were yelling. Then I started yelling. I’m so sorry. No one ever deserve to be yelled at, no matter what. In our house, we try to find respectful ways to express what we need, and I didn’t do a very good job of it then. So I’d like to try a do-over. But first, I want you to know that I’m really sorry, and I’m working hard to be respectful, even when I’m angry. We all get angry. It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to yell at other people.”
- Be sure your apology acknowledges the effect of your action on your child. You might say something like, “You started crying. It must have been pretty scary when I yelled, huh?” If your child just shrugs, that’s an acknowledgement that, yes, it’s scary, but they don’t want to admit it. Sometimes your child might angrily say, “I hate it when you act like that, Mommy,” and you can again empathize. “I know you do, Tess. It must be scary.” Older children will sometimes act like it doesn’t bother them when you yell, but it always does, so acknowledging that it must have been hard for them when you yelled is an important part of your apology.
- 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.
- 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. It’s my job to manage my own emotions. Yelling is no way to work something out with someone you love.”
- 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.”
- 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 take responsibility themselves.
- Give yourself a do-over if appropriate. “Sorry, Amelia, I didn’t mean to snap at you. Let me try that again. Here’s what I meant to say…”
- 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?”
- 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. Apologies are only meaningful if you know the person will act in good faith to avoid repeating the behavior.
- Ask your 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 on to 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?
*Excerpted from The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook.
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Josh Willink.