There's no such thing as the perfect parent. We all screw up sometimes. When we do, we can take the opportunity to model good behavior to our kids and become better parents at the same time. All we need to do is say two little words: "I'm sorry."
The thing is, those words don't always come easily, and might not always be appreciated by our kids. So how can parents make sure their apology hits the mark?
Rachel Kazez, licensed clinical social worker and founder of All Along, believes a good apology includes some version of three fundamental elements: an admission of being wrong, an expression of being sorry and a commitment to change. "A parent should apologize to a child when the parent has done something wrong or when the parent has allowed something bad to happen," said Kazez. "Another type of apology is a general expression of being sorry for unhappy circumstances, when a parent could apologize for something that has generally gone wrong."
Kazez suggests using "I feel" statements during an apology and avoiding saying, "I'm sorry, but…" because the "but" negates the apology. "This is often a way to try to pacify someone so they will listen to a directive, rather than to truly apologize," she explained.
It's important to think about why we're apologizing, rather than just go through the motions. "Are parents trying to stop the child from feeling a negative emotion? Or to reduce their own feeling of guilt?" asked Kazez. "Exploring why they want to apologize can help parents understand how to word it, how they'll know if it was taken well and whether they want to apologize at all." You might have missed your child's recital. You might have been late picking them up from school. You might have lost your temper and screamed at them over the breakfast table. Whatever the reason, if you have hurt your child or disrupted their trust (even momentarily), your behavior has impacted them and an apology is in order. It's important to know the difference between this situation and an apology that stems of feelings of guilt — for example when someone has done something for you — and "thank you" is the right thing to say, not "I'm sorry."
According to Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic and executive director of Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, it's not the words you use to apologize as much as a change in action that has a lasting effect. "Saying you're sorry without an explanation for why you did what you did or how you wouldn't have done what you did if they hadn't done something else is crucial," she said. "But the more important thing is 'What can I do help you, now?'" It's crucial to take all necessary steps to make sure the behavior doesn't repeat itself.
This is where empathy is key. "The ability to recognize a feeling in someone else is not required to change the feeling or make it go away, but simply to understand what it is, even if you don't feel the same way about the same thing at the same time," said Krawiec. "Helping your kid to know what feeling they are having (disappointment, anger, resentment, sadness, hurt) helps them to move from the limbic system (our flight or fight response) and into the prefrontal cortex where reason and thought and language occur. Acknowledging what feeling you caused and not being afraid or ashamed of it, but instead being validating and understanding will help your child learn to recognize their feelings and what they need to feel better."
Apologizing to our kids when we mess up doesn't just have a positive effect on our relationship with them. It also teaches kids how to be honest and accountable for their own actions. "By acknowledging your behavior, not making excuses, and showing them that you understand the impact of your actions, you are easing anxiety and rebuilding trust," said therapist Bethany Raab. "These actions also show your child that it is all right to be imperfect and to make mistakes."
Raab recommends keeping the actual apology simple. "Too much explanation can sound like excuses and undermine the real goal of saying that you are sorry," she said. Raab's basic formula is: "I am sorry for ____. I understand that my action(s) affected you." If you are ready to take it a step further and ask about their feelings, Raab suggests getting right to the point: "How are you feeling about what happened?"
By apologizing to our kids, we teach them empathy, respect and how to deal with mistakes — because we all make them.