Some days we crush parenting, while other days we accidentally send our kids to school with their winter gear crammed into a “Rosé All Day!” wine bag. (Oops.) For so many of us, the pressures of parenting during a global pandemic constantly fuel a swirling atmosphere of stress, worry, and exhaustion that can erupt from the slightest tremor. As endless expectations seep in as the new normal, it is inevitable that we will lose our cool when stretched thin enough (parenting experts and myself included.) Doing so often perpetuates feelings of guilt that take up permanent residence in our minds like stubborn cobwebs, casting a dusty shadow over any parenting achievement we may feel shining through.
Although reflecting on our own shortcomings can be cringe worthy for anyone, research shows that a rightful apology to our children has significant benefits to their development in both the short and long term. Not only does apologizing teach accountability, it can cement stronger family bonds, model healthy relationships, and decrease anxiety in children. While every household will undoubtedly experience bumps in the road, the benefits of apologizing can help guide us back to a smoother path.
Experiencing Apologies Teaches Kids Life-long Skills
An impactful apology just takes a few moments, but the long-term benefits of recognizing and repairing our own mistakes are ten-fold. Children who are taught and modeled authentic apologies are exposed to countless life skills, including accountability, responsibility, ownership, humility, empathy, honesty, and courage. Remember, kids do as we do, not just as we say, and acknowledging our mistakes can be the very best teaching moments for them.
Dr. Kate Roberts, a school psychologist and former professor of psychiatry at Brown University, elaborates, “Being wrong is not the same as being weak. Children need to be taught that asking for forgiveness and accepting failure is not only more important than covering up mistakes, but it’s a sign of strength and bravery.”
The more a child is exposed to parents or guardians taking ownership and responsibility for their mishaps, the more likely it is for the child to repeat that same positive behavior when they are in a situation that warrants an apology. Furthermore, kids who grow up in homes where caregivers normalize making and repairing mistakes are also more likely to approach those adults for guidance when they mess up. It’s important to create a space for children to feel safe and secure enough in their relationships to admit their own faults, which starts with our example.
Apologies Teach Kids that It’s Okay Not to Be Perfect
For as many positive characteristics that apologies show our children, they can also teach a valuable lesson of what not to do: feeling the pressure to be perfect. One day when my kids reflect on my character, I don’t want them to remember someone who was blind to her own shortcomings or hid behind a façade of perfectionism, which is an unhealthy and unattainable goal. Rather, I want them to recall someone who always strived to do her best yet also made mistakes (because saying I certainly do is an understatement) and had the resilience to recognize, repair, and learn from them.
Bestselling author, researcher, and speaker Dr. Brené Brown elaborates: “Imperfect parenting moments turn into gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time. The mandate is not to be perfect and raise happy children. Perfection doesn’t exist, and I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.”
Bottom line: Perfection doesn’t equate to happiness. Rather, it’s teaching our kids how to manage their inevitable mistakes that will set them up to be more successful in their personal endeavors, careers, and relationships. As the single most influential people in our children’s lives, this begins when caregivers model this concept and equip children with the emotional tools to properly mend mistakes and embrace their own imperfections.
Apologies Can Strengthen Your Relationship with the Child
Please feel reassured that losing our patience is a part of human nature that every parent will experience time and time again (like me with getting the kids to school on time because putting on shoes evidently takes 10 million years in our household.) Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that the situation or relationship can’t be repaired by comforting and reassuring your child.
Psychologist and mother of three Dr. Becky Kennedy explains, “When we ‘go back’ and layer on our connection, validation, and empathy onto moments that felt scary and alone…we change the memory. We really do. Now a child’s body doesn’t feel anxious and alone; a child’s body remembers feeling connected and safe. This is incredibly powerful, turning moments of disconnection into connection.”
In our relationship with our kids, apologizing when necessary helps to prevent cracks from forming, which can grow into deep crevices over time if wounds are repeatedly left unhealed. Rather, sincere apologies help to build a foundation of mutual respect and trustworthiness in a family, particularly because the children’s feelings are recognized and valued, rather than diminished.
Recognizing Our Shortcomings Improves Our Credibility as Authority Figures
There is the notion that highlighting our own failures may diminish our credibility as an authority figure to a child. However, just the opposite is almost always true. Imagine a Devil Wears Prada-style boss or a complicated relationship with someone who always has to be right, glazes over treating you poorly, or shifts the blame for their mistakes onto you. Does their apology avoidance make you respect them more or less? What if they looked you in the eye and genuinely said they were sorry and their behavior wasn’t your fault? This can be significantly impactful, especially for the credibility of caregivers or others in positions of authority.
“Apologizing for your own off-track behavior doesn’t mean that you don’t correct your child when necessary. Don’t worry, kids still know who’s boss. 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.” -Laura Markham, Ph.D., and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.
Some of the most respected leaders are admired not for their perfection, but for their willingness to recognize and learn from their mistakes. While an apology can’t always repair or excuse someone’s behavior, it can soften our opinion of the person initiating it. This is a critical component to preventing resentment and anger from brewing over time.
Sincere Apologies Model Healthy Relationships
Normalizing healthy relationship strategies during a child’s formative years greatly increase the likelihood that children will repeat and seek those positive habits in their own relationships.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “The importance of a child’s close relationship with a caregiver cannot be overestimated. Through relationships with important attachment figures, children learn to trust others, regulate their emotions, and interact with the world; they develop a sense of the world as safe or unsafe, and come to understand their own value as individuals…Our ability to develop healthy, supportive relationships with friends and significant others depends on our having first developed those kinds of relationships in our families.”
If volatile behavior is consistently downplayed or normalized without reparation, the odds increase for a child to seek or accept tumultuous behavior in future relationships, largely because it is familiar. Likewise, children who are exposed to respectful relationships where apologies are regularly modeled are statistically more likely to mimic and pursue those healthy practices in their own lives.
Apologizing Minimizes Feelings of Anxiety, Shame, or Confusion
It can be tempting to avoid an apology under the belief that revisiting an unpleasant situation will just make it worse, like picking a scab. But even though your child may seem fine, there could very well still be feelings of shame, anxiety, and confusion lingering beneath the surface.
Although we can’t go back and re-do every messy scenario, we can change our children’s perception of it by taking ownership over our negative behavior. Keep in mind that kids don’t have the life experience or perspective to understand “Mom or Dad had a hard day; this isn’t my fault.”
Rather, children can internalize the blame for a confrontation, believing there is something fundamentally wrong with them that triggered an extreme reaction from a parent. Simply acknowledging the situation with a sincere comment like “Hey, I’m really sorry I acted that way, it wasn’t your fault” can be incredibly beneficial for the child’s emotional well-being in both the short and long term.
Know That You’re Not Alone
It’s easy to think that we might be the only parent who has ever messed up, especially while seemingly perfect parents appear to be everywhere. At some point, even the “best” parents in the world will lose their cool at their kids, whether it’s posted on the ‘Gram or not. When that happens to you, give yourself grace and remember that we are all human. Know that we can go back and apologize, which will help our kids respect us more, not less, as we model accountability, healthy relationships, and courage, skills that can only help them navigate through life.
Lindsay Richardson is a writer and educator who has been published in a variety of major publications. She loves writing honestly and humorously about life experiences and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children (three if you ask the dog.) You can visit her website Hope and Happy Hour or follow her on Instagram: @hope_and_happy_hour.