It’s really easy to get down on yourself for behaving regretfully toward your child. What’s hard is forgiving yourself because you’re human and making amends.
Repairing mistakes is one of the best skills you can teach your child. Isn’t this what we want them to be able to do? Repairing, apologizing, owning up and being accountable for your behavior is the sign of a strong, responsible person—exactly what you want your child to become.
But it’s hard for many parents to own mistakes and make repairs. When you have learned through your childhood that apologizing, showing vulnerability by admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness, it is hard to do it with your child. It can feel like admitting defeat, losing authority, giving in. But the opposite is true.
Coming down off a righteous pedestal to apologize, to say I see it differently now and wish I hadn’t said what I did, to admit wrong-doing, is not backing down or being inconsistent and wishy-washy. On the contrary, it is the powerful thing to do.
Vulnerability does not equal weakness. Vulnerability means to be open, willing to learn and change. It means having a flexible mind that can be influenced and changed. It means being able to create connection. It’s hard to connect with someone who is rigid and right all the time.
When you feel unable to connect with your child, ask yourself if you are so attached to being right, that you are blocked from the ability to see the situation from your child’s point of view. No one wants to cooperate with this person, be it a parent, a friend, or boss.
Making a repair with your child can be broken down into steps:
- The first is to forgive yourself. If you believe you must show you are right, you are in a power struggle—both with yourself and your child. You may have negative associations with forgiveness. You may have never learned how to apologize in a way that was meaningful to you. Give yourself a break and stop blaming that child inside who never learned.
- Next, give yourself plenty of time to recover your equanimity. No need to rush into an apology before you are ready and able to do it genuinely, with true regret. You can return to a situation hours, days, weeks later. Imagine if one of your parents today recalled a scene twenty years ago when you felt misunderstood, unheard, treated unfairly. And that parent said, “I’ve never forgotten when x happened. I have always regretted how I reacted and didn’t let you explain yourself. I’m very sorry for that. I wish I had allowed you to tell your side of the story.” Phew.
- Rehearse repairs or do-overs until you feel comfortable and confident with them. If apologizing is hard for you, practice with something small. Apologize to your spouse or friend saying you wish you had said something different. Or just simply, “I’m sorry for how I reacted.”
- Acknowledge that it may feel very uncomfortable. That’s okay—it’s a learning process. When you expect discomfort, it makes it easier to go forward.
- Pick a time that is comfortable for you, and a time when your child is feeling calm or even talkative. Car time is good when you are not making eye contact. Both you and your child need to be as receptive as possible. When you are calm and your brain is not emotionally flooded, you can think clearly.
- If it’s been a while since the incident, start with, “Remember when…?” Wait for your child’s acknowledgment. She may expect more reprimand, so come in right away with, “I don’t like how I reacted.” When you start by taking responsibility, she will listen with open ears. Then explain what you didn’t like about what you did. No need to go over the situation. And do not add a “…but you are not allowed to….” No buts allowed in a repair. You are only apologizing for what is yours to own. Do not apologize for anyone else or for how your child felt. This is about you.
- Then add, “Here’s what I wish I had said or done instead.” Many parents can apologize and apologize and apologize. But apologies turn meaningless when your child sees no change in your behavior. Naming how you wish you had behaved holds you accountable.
- Do not ask your child to apologize. You might neutrally say, “Is there anything you wish you had said or done differently?” But it’s best to leave that step to your child which very well may come spontaneously. If it doesn’t, it’s ok. He may need time to trust that you mean what you are saying.
Soon you may be able to step back from negative reactions right away and say, “Hold on. Rewind. I don’t like how I reacted. I’m sorry for blaming you. I’ll get back to you soon on this.”
The modeling of a repair goes far beyond a mere apology. You have taught your child the power of vulnerability, how to take responsibility for her actions, how to feel better about herself, and how to repair her own relationships.