Here's What To Say To Your Kid When You Know You've Messed Up

We've all lost our cool in the heat of the moment. How we address the issue afterward determines whether our relationship with our kids suffers or is strengthened.

It happens to every parent at some point: We’re stressed from constantly juggling priorities, and our kid does that thing again. The one that gets on our last nerve. The one we’ve repeatedly asked them not to do.

We explode, hurling accusations: “Why do you keep... I’ve told you a million times...” But almost as soon as the words leave our lips, we regret them.

We’re supposed to be modeling the kind of behavior we want to see in our kids, and we want to remain authority figures in their lives. How do we admit that we messed up without undermining these roles?

By showing our kids how to take ownership of our actions, including our mistakes, and how to give an authentic apology, we are modeling important skills for our children. Our kids seeing us at our best and worst allows us to connect with them authentically.

“Repair strengthens relationships,” Sarah Bren, a family psychologist in New York, told HuffPost.

“We have to look at it as a gift in a way. If we never lost it, if we never messed up, if we never had a fight with someone that we’re in a relationship with — that’d be a pretty flat, superficial relationship,” she said.

For help with figuring out how to turn a low moment into an opportunity for growth and reflection, we spoke with psychologists and gathered tips on how to talk to your kid when you know that you’ve messed up.

First, take a breath, and show yourself a little compassion.

It might seem like a good idea to launch into your apology right away, but first, take a moment to check in with yourself.

“Reset and take a breath,” Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist practicing in Texas, told HuffPost.

Our reaction — or overreaction — is “because our nervous system has been triggered in some way. And the trigger is not our kids’ fault,” said Lockhart.

“Because the kid can act the exact same way another day when your needs are being met, and you’re rested, and you’re not hungry, and you haven’t just got back from a trip, and then you don’t react that way.”

Lockhart suggests taking a breath or two to calm your nervous system.

For “a lot of parents, usually, it’s an overreaction” that we need to apologize for, said Cindy Graham, a psychologist who works with kids, teens and adults in Maryland.

Before addressing your child, Bren explained, “there’s a little bit of self-work we have to do first.”

“A lot of times, if we have to repair, either we did something that we’re really not feeling good about, and we’re perhaps beating ourselves up, or we’re really mad at someone else for doing something. And probably both,” Bren continued.

“You can’t really repair unless you can kind of find that physical place of compassion, self-compassion and compassion for another,” she added.

She suggests that before you speak to your child, you remind yourself: “I’m not a bad parent. I’m a human being who loses my cool sometimes. And nothing can’t be fixed.”

It might seem like a good idea to apologize to your child right away, but first, take a moment to check in with yourself.
Kseniya Ovchinnikova via Getty Images
It might seem like a good idea to apologize to your child right away, but first, take a moment to check in with yourself.

Pick the right moment, and pay attention to your body language.

Depending on the intensity of the situation, you and/or your child may need a while to cool down before you talk about what happened.

“A little bit after the storm” is often a good time, said Bren. “They have to feel safe, we have to feel safe.”

Take stock of your needs and your child’s, and keep your temperament in mind.

“If you’re the kind of person that tends to be a little bit spiteful, or you hold on to stuff... then taking ownership in the moment is probably not the best time because it’s not going to be genuine,” said Lockhart.

If you’re unsure whether your child is ready for your apology, Lockhart advised you to ask them directly, “Do you want to talk about this now? Or do you need a few minutes?”

When you approach your child, ensure your body language affirms that you are looking to repair, not fight. If your child is small, get down on their level so that you can see eye-to-eye.

“We want our face to be soft and calm. We want to offer eye contact but not demand it — not be intrusive to them,” said Bren.

You also want to lower the volume of your voice and soften your tone. No kid will believe an apology is authentic if you shout it at them.

Keep it brief, and focus on your apology.

“When we’re actually talking to our kid, there’s sort of a tendency, I think, to talk too much, to want to create a lot of explanation and just a crusade and turn it into a teaching moment,” said Bren.

“No one wants to receive an apology and be lectured simultaneously,” she added.

There is a better time for your child to learn how essential it is to pick his dirty clothes up off the floor and put them into the laundry basket. All you want, at that moment, is for him to know that you’re sorry you blew up about it.

While your explanations may be longer with older kids, it pays to keep them brief, even with teens.

“They start to gloss over, and they glaze over, and then they shut down. They don’t hear anything you say,” Lockhart said.

Start by narrating objectively what happened.

You might start by saying, “You threw your food on the floor, and I yelled at you.”

Then, Bren suggests you “talk a little bit about how that might have felt for your child.”

If you noticed the look on their face when it happened, you could probably guess how they might have felt at the moment. You can say something like, “that must have been scary for you.”

Then, take ownership of what you did and offer a true, unqualified apology.

Examples include: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that,” or “I should never speak to you that way.”

“We don’t want to say something like, ‘I’m sorry that you made me yell,’” said Lockhart. “That feels attacking. They’re gonna get defensive. And then it just goes downhill.”

Let your child know that they’re not responsible for your feelings.

Say something like, “it’s not your fault that I yelled.”

Your child should understand that they are not to blame for your emotions. Even though they did something aggravating, your oversized reaction had more to do with you than with them.

Keep it to “I” statements.

Lockhart suggests using I statements to explain how you were feeling and why you may have overreacted this time: “I yelled because I was feeling exhausted/overwhelmed.”

The key here is that the explanation is about your feelings, not your child’s actions. If their behavior needs to be addressed, that should be done later, separately. Your apology — your repair work — deserves its own moment.

Our kids seeing us at our best and worst allows us to connect with them authentically.
Christa Boaz via Getty Images
Our kids seeing us at our best and worst allows us to connect with them authentically.

Reassure your child that you love them no matter what.

You want to reassure your child and connect with them: “Even when I’m angry, and I yell, I still love you.”

“If you come away from a repair as a child learning, hey, even when something doesn’t feel good between me and my parent, that feeling gets resolved, and it goes away, and I feel safe again with them. That is going to really create a strong attachment,” said Bren.

Now could be the moment for a hug, if that’s something your child might want, or another gesture “communicating that you care about the impact that [the incident is] having on your child,” said Graham.

There are a few things you’ll want to avoid.

There are several things you want to avoid saying when you’re trying to apologize to your kid.

One is what Lockhart calls “diffusion of responsibility,” or blaming your child, your partner — anyone else — for your behavior. You want to take sole ownership of what you did.

Lockhart advises against “playing the victim,” as in phrases such as “no one ever listens to me” — even if they’re true. This “can elicit a response from your child to then take care of you after you just hurt them,” said Lockhart, and is definitely not a behavior you want them carrying forward in their life.

Finally, you want to avoid shutting down.

“Many individuals do that because that’s what they were taught. They were either isolated as a kid, or their parents told them, ‘Don’t talk about those things,’” said Lockhart.

But, as parents, we can do things differently with our kids, teaching them skills they need to build other strong relationships.

Sometimes, there are smaller ruptures — an unkind comment that you suddenly realize you shouldn’t have shared, for example.

“Sometimes it’s a quick blip, right? Sometimes I snap, or I say something kind of like, sharp,” Bren continued.

Bren calls these “micro-ruptures” and advises immediate repair if everyone feels safe and calm. If you say something that doesn’t sit right, for example, you could immediately say:

  • “That doesn’t sound right, does it?”
  • “I shouldn’t have said that.”
  • “I want to take that back.”
  • “That didn’t come out the right way.”
  • “That didn’t feel good to you, did it? It didn’t feel good to me, either.”
  • “Let’s delete that.”

“Don’t underestimate the value of that small repair,” Bren added. “That’s really teaching our kids social skills and mindful awareness of how we engage with others in the moment.”

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