How “I’m Sorry” Changes the Parent/Child Dynamic

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The other day, I was helping my daughter put clean sheets on her bed when I came across a list of nighttime relaxation strategies she had written down. The list was taped to the end of her bed and included strategies such as “relaxing stories, deep breathing, and reading.” There was one thing that seemed out of place, though. In the middle of a long list of positive strategies were the words “don't ask questions.”

Taking the time to apologize when we've upset our children changes the parent/child dynamic for the better.

When I asked her about it, she admitted that I seemed too tired to answer questions a few nights before, and she felt like asking questions was too stressful at night. My heart sank as she told me her concerns. I knew the night she was talking about. I was tired. I was exhausted, really, and I did push along the bedtime routine at a faster pace that night. I wasn't as present as I normally am, and she felt it in her little soul.

“I am so sorry that I made you feel stressed,” I whispered as I wrapped her up in my arms. “You can always ask me questions, and I will always be here for you.”

We had a long talk about how we all act when we're overtired and what we can do to help each other when one of us seems tired or stressed. We brainstormed together for quite some time, and then we played dolls together to reset our souls.

As parents, we often encourage our kids to apologize to others when they make a mistake or do something hurtful, but how often do we show them the importance of apologizing and working through difficult emotions? How often do we stop to consider how the seemingly small moments of stress that we exhibit truly affect our children?

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Apologies are important. Children need to hear that we make mistakes and that we take responsibility for our actions. In fact, taking the time to apologize when we've upset our children changes the parent/child dynamic for the better.

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It conveys empathy.

If we want to raise empathic children who care about others, we have to begin by extending empathy to them. When we stop what we're doing to consider how our actions and voice tones impact our children and apologize when we're wrong, we show our children that we care for them and that we want to make things right.

Caring for their souls in times of stress strengthens the parent/child bond and relieves our children of the pressure to behave perfectly at every moment. When parents exhibit stress, many children internalize that stress as related to their behavior. When parents apologize, children learn that we all make mistakes and that we can forgive one another.

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It models forgiveness.

Parents often tell little kids to forgive and forget or to simply move on, but what does that actually mean? The world is a confusing place for children, and they are told what to do without truly understanding what they are doing. Commanding a child to say sorry or to forgive a friend doesn't help that child understand the process of working through feelings to find forgiveness.

Kids first learn how to relate to others by taking their cues from their parents. They watch us to see how we respond to stressful situations and work through complicated interactions with others. Apologizing and talking through feelings models the act of forgiveness while restoring positive emotions.

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It normalizes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone chooses hurtful words at times or handles unpleasant emotions in ways that negatively impact others. It happens. We all mess up. We tell our kids that it's OK to make mistakes, but in the eyes of our children, we rarely make them.

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Apologizing for our errors, no matter how small, normalizes the process of making mistakes and of taking responsibility for your actions. It also shows our kids that although they might not always make the best choice in the heat of the moment, they can begin to rectify mistakes by apologizing to those they hurt.

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How “I’m Sorry” Changes the Parent/Child Dynamic

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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