“We tell children, ‘Go apologize to your brother,’ but they can learn more by experiencing you apologizing to them,” says Jeremy Ruckstaetter, a professor of counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. When Ruckstaetter started researching apologies in graduate school, he found perplexingly few studies focusing on apologies from parents to children. For his doctoral dissertation, he surveyed 327 parents and found that those who regularly apologized to their children reported stronger attachment bonds.
Apologizing is hard. “It can feel like death,” Ruckstaetter says. If you’ve hurt a child with your words or actions, don’t ignore the resulting distress. Embrace guilt, a feeling that contains within it a recognition of wrongdoing that can prompt prosocial behavior. “Move into your guilt and say, ‘I was wrong,’” Ruckstaetter says. Notice if your response feels more like shame, which often results in withdrawal rather than apology. Shame might manifest as internal dialogue that says, “I’m bad,” or “I’m unworthy,” whereas guilt tends to arise with more specificity: “I feel bad for saying those mean things.”
You don’t need to apologize for setting limits. If you say no to cookies before dinner and your child throws herself on the ground crying, that’s her emotional dysregulation, not yours. If, however, you are the one erupting in uncontrollable anger, say you’re sorry. “If you want them to take responsibility for their actions, shouldn’t you do that as well?” Ruckstaetter says. Don’t assume a child is too young to understand. Researchers have found that by age 3, children grasp morality and recognize an apology-worthy breach. Don’t excuse your transgression (“I’m sorry I yelled, but you need to pick up your toys”). Don’t share the blame (“I’m sorry we fought”). You can have a conversation about your child’s behavior separately, but first let the child hear your unqualified remorse.
Ruckstaetter likes to poll his students informally to ask how often they experienced apologies from their parents. “It usually skews toward once or never,” he says. And yet such admissions of regret can echo through generations; the parents in his survey who received apologies from their own parents reported being closer with their children. Maybe the child you hurt is grown. An apology can be meaningful years, even decades, after a transgression. “It’s never too late to say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Ruckstaetter says.