When my oldest kid was a preschooler, I remember a tense standoff between him and an adult. The adult, a parent of a fellow 3-year-old, insisted he apologize for snatching a toy from their kid. I felt frozen in place. So did my kid, as I watched him avoid eye contact and curl up into a ball. Yes, my kid had made a mistake. His behavior was developmentally appropriate for a threenager, but still wrong. At the same time — apologizing is hard. It’s hard for adults, and infinitely harder for kids.
While I didn’t force my kid to apologize in that moment, I did begin to think more critically about how and when kids should learn to apologize. It’s not something that kids know how to do naturally. Just like with anything in parenting, kids learn healthy behavior best when it is modeled by parents. If I tell my kids to clear their place at the table when they're done, they will eventually pick up the habit. If I model it by clearing my own plate, they absorb it as part of family culture. It’s no different with learning to apologize. When parents apologize to our kids, we teach them how to say they are sorry, too.
What do our apologies teach our kids?
The art of the apology is not as simple as clearing a plate, says Patrice Berry, a clinical psychologist in Virginia for kids, teens and adults who educates people about mental health on YouTube and TikTok.
“Learning how and when to apologize is an important life skill that all kids will need to successfully navigate relationships in the future," Berry tells Yahoo Life.
This process can take time. When parents model apologies to their kids, they also give them a script to use for their own apologies. Not only does telling kids we are sorry improve the parent-child relationship, it improves all of their relationships. The act of apologizing educates kids about the fact that everyone makes mistakes.
“We are responsible for the impact of our actions,” Berry says. Whether we hurt someone — on purpose or by accident — our kids need to see us apologize. “Often people fail to make amends when there is a miscommunication or they had good intentions. The impact of our actions matter.”
Apologizing also lets our kids know that it is OK to make a mistake, says Emily W. King, a child psychologist in Raleigh, N.C. In her Substack newsletter, Learn With Dr. Emily, she coaches parents through a variety of developmental topics, such as modeling positive behavior and emotional regulation for our kids.
“If we give kids the impression that everyone does the best thing the first time, we erroneously set the bar too high,” King says. When we lose our temper or make a mistake that negatively affects them, it’s the perfect chance to show kids that we are human, too. “We need to show kids how to be vulnerable and admit that being ‘right’ is not as important as being honest and authentic,” she adds.
We need to show kids how to be vulnerable and admit that being ‘right’ is not as important as being honest and authentic.
How do we apologize to our kids?
It seems fairly clear that it is a good practice to apologize to our kids, but acting on that practice can be more difficult. After all, it’s hard for most adults (and kids) to admit when they are wrong. The physical reactions my child had — avoiding eye contact and withdrawing — are pretty common responses in adults when they need to apologize, too.
The key, says Berry, is to have a reciprocal conversation instead of just talking “at” your child. “It is important to first listen to your child’s perspective,” she says.
She uses the example of apologizing to your child for being late to pick them up at an activity. As a parent, you could say, "If you are ready to talk, I am ready to hear about how my being late again made you feel.” Validate the feelings they share, such as affirming the fact that it was scary for them.
King adds that it is important for parents to own their own behavior without attributing any blame to the child. For example, if you lose your temper — own it.
“Don’t blame your kid for your emotional dysregulation," she says. "For instance, [by saying] ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you just wouldn’t stop making that noise!’ You are an adult and you are able to walk away.” This sets our kids up to be able to give quality apologies without shifting blame to others.
Over time, frequent, honest apologies to our kids will build up their apology muscle, too. When a situation occurs that your child should apologize for, it’s important to be cognizant of the setting as well as your kid’s emotional state. Just like I didn’t force my child to perform on command for the adult requesting his response, we shouldn’t force our kids to apologize before they feel ready, says King.
“Wait until the emotion dust has settled later that day or even the next morning," she advises. "Sit with your kid in a collaborative problem-solving kind of way.”
Just as you modeled for them during your apologies, share how their actions made you feel and why it hurt you. Your kid might struggle, avoid eye contact or feel unsure about how to act. That’s OK. Give them the time and space they need to apologize authentically rather than forcing it.
What steps should we take after an apology?
Whether you are apologizing to your kid or walking them through how to apologize to someone else, it is crucial to come up with a plan for the future. One of my kids recently apologized to me for accidentally damaging a book. He ended with, “That will never ever happen again, Mom.” I gently reminded him that he might actually ruin a book again, and instead we made a concrete plan for organizing books in his room so that it is less likely — though not impossible.
Berry says it is important to outline for kids our plan to lessen the chances of repeating our mistake, and help them make those same plans for themselves.
In the case of a late school pick-up, you can’t guarantee you won’t ever be late again. There are traffic jams, flat tires and unpredictable weather. You can plan, though, to call the school when you are late so that your child is not worried. For instances in which you lost your temper, King suggests outlining for your child a plan to regulate your emotions: “Next time I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m going to step out on the porch and take a few breaths and then we can figure it out together. How does that sound?” Not only does this model an action plan after an apology, it models how to take space and reset your emotions.
While it can feel difficult to apologize to our kids and admit our mistakes, this is critical parenting work. Not only does it strengthen our relationship, it helps them to build healthy relationships with others in the future, too.
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