My son and I used to have a constant battle over his beloved LEGO pieces. He liked them scattered all over the family room, and I liked not stepping on them hundreds of times a day. Fed up, one day I scooped them all up, shouted some gibberish at him and threatened to throw out every single toy he had, including the ones he had not even received yet.
It took a good hour before I calmed down and realized I had overreacted.
The good news about making mistakes with your kids is that you get an opportunity to turn your apology into a “valuable teaching moment,” making you feel less crappy for messing up in the first place. “If I hadn’t lost my temper, I wouldn’t get to teach you this other really valuable lesson,” you’ll smugly tell your child.
But knowing when to utter the apology isn’t always clear. Enter parenting expert Ann Douglas. As the author of numerous books, including most recently Parenting Through the Storm, she offers up invaluable advice to help frazzled and frustrated moms and dads navigate the ups and downs of parenting.
A chronic apologizer herself, Douglas jokes that she’s not sure if it’s that she’s Canadian or if it’s more a matter of personality (she’s a peacemaker by nature), but she finds that saying sorry when she’s messed up works well, for her and for the other person. “For one thing, when I make an apology, I’m telling my child that our relationship matters to me. I want to fix what’s gone wrong. And I’m also giving my child permission to make similar apologies too, as opposed to constantly striving to be perfect, which is stressful and impossible.”
Though there are many scenarios you’re likely to find yourself in where an apology to your child is warranted, we discussed the specifics of a few common ones with Douglas.
Your child is driving you bonkers, and you eventually lash out
According to Douglas, we don’t need to make excuses for our behaviour when we go off the rails. “I let my child know that I am aware that I was in the wrong, and then I express my commitment to try to do better next time.” Children deserve to be treated with kindness and respect, she explains. If we fall short of that mark as parents, it’s important to acknowledge that.
Do you apologize on behalf of other people?
Let’s say a family member lets them down; do you apologize on their behalf?
It’s our instinct to protect our children from bad behaviour even when we’re not the ones who imposed it. But Douglas explains, “We can express our concern about the other family member’s behaviour (“Grandpa shouldn’t have yelled at you like that”), but we shouldn’t be apologizing for the other person.” She is adamant that for an apology to actually mean anything, it needs to come from the person who has committed the wrong.
Do you apologize to your kids if you get sick?
I know a few parents who aren’t able to attend kids’ events because of illnesses, for example. Does your child need an apology?
It can be really hard to expose our weaknesses to our children. But according to Douglas, what you may want to do is explain to your child why you can’t make it to their special event — because you’re throwing up with the flu, for example — and then to share your feelings of regret about missing this big moment in their life: “I was so looking forward to seeing you in the school play. You’ve worked so hard to memorize your lines!” This isn’t the same thing as an apology, which makes sense, because you didn’t choose to become ill. The flu chose you.
You tell a white lie to protect your child, but years later the truth comes out
So you got caught in a lie, even a seemingly harmless one. Here’s what to do now, according to Douglas. “You can do both here: You can share the thinking that led you to act the way you did, and then apologize for not being honest and forthright with your child on that particular occasion.” What you want to do is let him know that you understand how foundational trust is to a relationship and promise to do better in future.
Your children’s friends have bigger homes and more money to do “fun” stuff
This isn’t an uncommon scenario, especially as your children get older. A better approach, says Douglas, is to simply validate your child’s feelings: to let your child know that you understand how hard it is to have to do without something that their friends have the money to enjoy. “What you want to do is let your child know that her feelings of frustration and disappointment make sense.”