Should Parents Apologize to Their Kids When They Mess Up?

Should parents apologize when they make mistakes? If so, how? What difference does it make for your children?

As a parent, you’re the top role model for your kids. While you’d like to be perfect, you’re not. You might want your kids to think you’re perfect, but that sort of unrealistic perspective harms them more than it helps them.

Read more to learn why it’s important for you and your children that you own up to your mistakes and make amends.

Should Parents Apologize?

Psychotherapist and parent Philippa Perry argues that, though you should strive for emotional stability and empathy, being a good parent isn’t about behaving perfectly all the time. You’ll occasionally react in an unhelpful way, hurt your child’s feelings, or misunderstand your child. So, should parents apologize? Perry says they should. What’s most important for your parent-child relationship is that you acknowledge your imperfections and make amends for the harm you cause.

Some people think that, to feel safe, a child needs to believe their parents don’t make mistakes. However, this belief is faulty—children need you to model honesty and humility for them, not perfection. If you act as if you’re always right and never acknowledge your mistakes, you risk making your child feel like you don’t care about their feelings or that they’re responsible for your moods.

Your child’s intuition will likely tell them when you’re wrong, but your refusal to acknowledge it will make them question the validity of their feelings, increasing the likelihood that they’ll suppress them later. This may negatively affect the way they relate to other people, leading them to accommodate other people’s needs over their own.  

Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Your Mistakes (And Why You Should Admit Them)

As Perry suggests, ignoring your mistakes as a parent can have serious consequences for the way your child relates to others. If you make a habit of never acknowledging or actively denying any time you’re wrong, that can become gaslighting—a manipulation tactic that conditions victims to doubt their perceptions by consistently refuting them. No matter how good your intentions are toward your child, this pattern of behavior can make them more susceptible to emotional manipulation and gaslighting in their other relationships, since they’ve become used to doubting their reality. This leaves them vulnerable to abusive relationships.

There are several benefits of admitting when you’re wrong as a parent beyond demonstrating honesty and validating your child’s feelings. For instance, when your child sees you admitting your mistakes, it makes them feel like they can make mistakes too. This reduces the chance they’ll become a perfectionist, which can lead to anxiety, difficulties in school and work, and low self-worth. Additionally, admitting your mistakes makes you stay accountable as a parent and a person—when you acknowledge wrongdoing, you’re less likely to repeat the same behavior. 

Putting It Into Practice: Change Your Behavior and Apologize

To make amends for mistakes, Perry says to start by apologizing to your child and explaining what you did wrong, why you did what you did, and what you’d do differently. Then, change your behavior—figure out what prompted your unfair reaction or the misunderstanding, and act differently the next time a similar situation arises.

(Shortform note: When making amends with your child, the following tips from parenting experts may be helpful: First, acknowledge any hurt feelings they may have. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry, I know I upset you.” Second, explain the circumstances behind your reaction. This isn’t making an excuse—it’s giving your child the context they need to feel compassion for you and see that you’re human. For example, you might tell them that you snapped at them because you had a hard day at work, but that doesn’t make it OK. Third, be specific when telling them what you’ll do to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. For example, you might promise that you’ll take a deep breath before reacting the next time.)

Should Parents Apologize to Their Kids When They Mess Up?

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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