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When and How to Apologize to Your Kids

As parents, we all make mistakes. Knowing how – and when – to admit we are wrong and apologize to your kids is critical at all ages. Leading by example will teach your child it's perfectly normal to admit when they're wrong and how to apologize in a healthy way.

how and when to apologize to your kids


When your child says something hateful to their sibling, or yanks a toy away from their playmate, chances are, you make them apologize. But when is the last time you apologized to your child? It's pretty rare for parents to feel like they should apologize, but many times we have lingering guilt when we don't.

If you're a yeller, I know you've felt that guilt – because I have, too. I've learned how to stop yelling at my children, but that doesn't mean I'm always a perfect parent. I lose my temper from time to time and honestly sometimes I have to tell them to just go away (into another room) so I can breathe. That is perfectly okay to do, but once you've calmed down, you need to have a chat with your child and explain the emotions you were feeling when you lose your cool.

When You Should Apologize to Your Child

We all make mistakes from time to time. Acknowledging this and apologizing when necessary is an important part of a healthy parent-child relationship.

Apologizing constantly isn't a good habit to get into, and isn't a healthy example to set for your child. Only apologize when you've done something that warrants it. Apologizing for not being able to afford a toy your child wants, or apologizing because you said “no” to ice cream. Apologize when you make a mistake, when you lose your temper, or when you do something that truly warrants an apology.

Regaining Trust

When we get angry and yell, or say things we shouldn't, it can break the trust we've built with our children. Rebuilding trust takes a lot longer than breaking it does, but it's not impossible to do.

regaining a childs trust

Listen to What Your Child is Saying

Whether they're speaking and verbally telling you how you made them feel, or their body language is sending signals that they're upset, listen to what your child is saying. Listening is the only way you can fix the situation and figure out what your child needs from you to remedy it.

Make Eye Contact

When giving an apology, making eye contact ensures the recipient of the apology understands how sincere you are. Put your phone away (chances are you shouldn't be on it so much anyway), get on your child's level, and give a sincere apology.

Apologizing shows your child you are remorseful for the behavior you displayed or the words you used, and that you aren't making excuses for it. Explaining to them what happened, and how you were feeling during the time you lost control, can help your child relate to you. This is one way to begin to rebuild trust with them.

How to Apologize to Your Child

How you apologize to your kids will depend on their age and understanding. My 13 year old has delays so sometimes our conversations are far more simple than they would be if I was speaking with a typical 13 year old. In some ways it makes it easier, but in other ways it makes it more difficult!

Keep it Simple

There is no need for a long, drawn out apology or explanation as to why you lost your temper. Don't justify or make excuses for your poor behavior, either.

“I'm sorry for losing my temper earlier. I'm working really hard to make sure it won't happen again. Next time, I will take a breather when I get upset, instead of yelling.”

“I'm really sorry for losing my temper and yelling. Can we start over?”

These statements can calm your child down if they have gotten upset after you lost your temper.

Sometimes, keeping it simple works. Other times, it's helpful to explain a bit and use it as a teaching moment.

Explain What Happened

Sometimes kids get confused when we lose our temper. Explain what happened – “Mommy lost her temper because she was very upset. Even when you're upset, it's not okay to yell or throw things, so Mommy is working on that. Can you help me stay calm by counting to 10 with me?” Hopefully you won't lose your temper to the point of yelling or throwing things, but you get the idea.

Explaining what happened to create the situation that upset you in the first place can help you figure out how to prevent it in the future. Obviously these tips depend on the age of your child(ren), but even from a young age, kids can help ground us just like meditation can.

Explain the “Why” Behind the Apology

Explaining why you need to apologize is helpful in teaching your children when they should apologize. Saying you yelled because you lost your temper is fairly vague, so try to elaborate a bit if they're old enough to understand.

“It's not okay to yell at people. I'm sorry I scared you when I raised my voice. I am going to use my (insert calming technique) next time, before I get that angry.”

Lying, being disrespectful, yelling, etc are not behaviors we want our children to emulate.

Know Your Child

My daughter, Sapphire, really likes schedules. Her diagnoses include ADHD, autism, and DMDD. When our schedule changes, even a little bit, there's a high chance that a total meltdown is coming on. Since we started using the Nurtured Heart Approach, the meltdowns have subsided substantially, but she still needs a schedule or she will shut down.

What are your child's triggers? Does the word “no” set them off? Instead of saying “no”, I try to find a positive way to word it. “No yelling” turns into “use your inside voice, please”. “No, you can't watch TV” turns into “TV time is at 7PM for 30 minutes. Do you want me to set an alarm to remind you when it's almost 7?”

Sapphire knows our Mommy-Daughter time is at a certain time each night. Sometimes things come up and I have to handle them, which pushes our time back by an hour or more. She gets upset when this happens, so if I can let her know ahead of time that we are switching the time around, it helps.

Again, I always try to put a positive spin on things and let her know what's going on. “I have to work at 6 tonight, but I'll be finished by 7 and then we can do hair and makeup together. Sound good? Great!” As long as I keep a positive tone and body language, giving her something to look forward to, it prevents meltdowns.

apologizing to your child

Avoid Blame

Sometimes I fall into the trap of blaming someone else when I lose my cool, when in fact it is my responsibility – and mine alone – to manage my emotions. No matter what anyone else does, how they act, or what they say, it's still up to me to decide how to react to the situation. Yelling is unacceptable – especially to children – so it's something I worked on daily until I was able to accept full responsibility for my emotions and stop yelling.

When apologizing to your child, don't say “I'm sorry I yelled but you shouldn't have been throwing your toys”. That's not an apology. You wouldn't accept an “I'm sorry, but…” from your child as an apology so don't give a half assed apology like that to them.

Justification is Unnecessary

You don't ever have to justify your child's bad behavior. Many parents feel that they shouldn't apologize because it somehow justifies the bad behavior that was a catalyst to them losing their temper. This couldn't be further from the truth.

I've had issues with my 13 year old back talking and mumbling under her breath. My apology would look something like this:

“When you back talked earlier, I felt very upset. I shouldn't have yelled at you, and I'm sorry. I will work on staying calm, and I need you to work on listening the first time I ask you to do something. Back talking is disrespectful, and it's important we both respect each other. Deal? Deal.”

I'm not justifying her behavior; in fact, I'm reminding her that it was inappropriate. I'm also not saying “I'm sorry BUT…” because that diminishes my apology. I'm apologizing, genuinely and wholeheartedly, and will work on not yelling in the future. At the same time, I'm reinforcing that the negative behavior is unwanted and unacceptable. While I am apologizing, my daughter is much more receptive than when she's throwing a fit or back talking. I find it “sticks” with her better when we have important conversations like this after the storm has passed.

You know your child best. Apologize in a way you know they'll be receptive, and use this time as a teaching moment if you feel it will help.

how to teach children to apologize

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Don't give a fake apology in the heat of the moment. It's okay to take a breather, step away from the situation for a bit, and revisit it at a later time when you're able to give a sincere apology.

Doing it this way teaches your child that it's okay to give themselves time to calm down after losing their temper, throwing their toys, whatever the issue was. Don't make them apologize immediately. If they don't apologize on their own, wait for the storm to calm a bit and then talk to them about their behavior, why it was unacceptable, and why they should apologize. A forced apology isn't a sincere apology, and it isn't doing you or your child any favors.

Tell the Truth

Instead of saying “I'm sorry for yelling, it will never happen again”, tell your child you're working on it. If you promise that it will never happen again, and it does, you'll lose your child's trust.

The Bottom Line

When you apologize, it lifts the shame and guilt off of you and helps your child understand you're human just like they are. Hearing a parent apologize helps children learn how to apologize when they make mistakes, too. This can help them avoid the spiral of shame we have all experienced from time to time.


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