“I’m Sorry”-When to Apologize to our Kids and Why it is So Important Now

By Inda H. Brink, LMFT



As parents we are not perfect, especially under stress! During this Covid 19 pandemic, we are all feeling a mix of uncertainty, fear, and frustration, which means stress on parents. Without wanting to, harsh things can be said. Right now after weeks of sheltering in place, Zoom conferences for work and Google Classroom sessions for school, tempers are running high. We are going to make mistakes, and may say something we regret. This may hurt our relationship with our children. Apologies can help.

So how do we heal the relationship with our children and provide a model on how to apologize?

Many times people say, “I’m sorry,” thinking this is enough. The purpose of the apology is to let the hurt person know that their intention wasn’t to cause harm. When it comes to our relationship with our kids, this matters even more. The relationship needs to be healed, so your child can feel safe.

Do you recall situations in the past when someone apologized to you? How did it change your feelings about them? Too often, simply saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.

Several years ago, as part of my training to work with families, I read about the essential components needed for a heartfelt apology. I have taught these steps and used these steps both as a family therapist and in my personal life. Understand that this process is a place to start. Every grievance doesn’t hurt the same. The apology shouldn’t be a “one size fits all.” Make adjustments based upon your situation. Know that your child may not be ready to hear your apology. If that’s your situation, don’t despair. Remember that you need to provide a role model on how to apologize and give your child time to feel safe and heard. If you want your child to learn how to apologize, you need to model it for them.

Four Key Steps to a Great Apology

  1. Admit it. Recognize when you did or said something hurtful. Be specific rather than general. “I made a mean remark about your pet,” is more productive than “Forgive me for what I said last night.”

  1. Provide a reason. Be very cautious on this step. The intention is not to blame the hurt child. For example, don’t say “I snapped at you because you kept being disrespectful.” Instead try, “I got upset because I didn’t realize how frustrated I was.” Take responsibility for your actions or words.

  1. Express regret. Let your child know that you feel uncomfortable about what you said or did. Our natural inclination is to shy away from hurtful feelings. Instead, accept them. Know that regret, shame and remorse are important components of accepting culpability. “I don’t know what got into me to say that,” is not taking responsibility nor expressing regret. Try telling them, “I feel hurt and embarrassed for saying mean things about your pet.”

  1. Heal the hurt. When a parent says something harsh to a child, we need to heal the hurt and help our child to feel safe. This takes time, kind words and gestures. Parents need to model how to apologize, forgive and move on. Make it right and don’t hold a grudge. Who wants to be reminded of past mistakes? What will it take to heal the hurt? Ask your child, “What could I do to help the situation?” The purpose is to heal the hurt for your child, not to make you feel better. Although you probably will feel better when the relationship is healed.

Adapted from The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

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