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Apologies and Young Children: Love means knowing when to say "I'm Sorry"

While trying to multi-task (poorly) last night before dinner, I was horrified to realize I had succesfully set the timer on the oven for the correct time, but failed to actually turn the oven on. It had been a relatively busy day for me after completing 3 loads of laundry, helping my kindergartener complete his homework, making lunch, school drop-off, catching up on work emails, school pick--up, playdate at the park, bringing child to martial arts class, returning books to library and grocery pick-up, just to get home at 6:30 in order to start dinner. Now enter previously mentioned major oven-fail. I secretly was able to turn on the oven before my husband noticed and quickly re-set the timer. While trying to compensate for this obvious delay in dinner, I re-direct my husband into a discussion about the day. Shortly into this convo, he asked (with more attitude than I cared for in that moment) “So when exactly are we going to eat dinner tonight?” This was my tipping point. Frustrated and upset with myself for my major dinner mistake, I briskly began assembling the rest of our meal. Now this is the moment my son entered the kitchen to also express his displeasure with the current dinner situation. “I’m hungry mommy! When are we going to eat dinner?” he whined. My frustration boiled over and I snapped back at him “There’s no dinner for you tonight! Go into the livingroom!” He began to cry and left the room. I immediately felt terrible, but was also in my own place of poor emotional adaptation while rushing to get something on the table for my starving family.

Finally, dinner was served. As my son and husband began to feel their bellies filling and everyone’s blood sugar began to rise, I turned to my son sitting next to me “Honey, I want to apologize for yelling at you before dinner. I was feeling really frustrated and I said something that was not very nice to you. I want you know I will always feed you and I will always make sure you have enough food. I’m very sorry for what I said, can you forgive me?” Before I could even finish my apology, I felt his little arms wrapping tightly around my abdomen with a hug. “I forgive you mommy.” He said. My heart melted with his immediate and unconditional willingness to forgive and show love to someone who had hurt him.

While I am happy to say that my tendency to snap or yell out of frustration has declined over the past few years, it still of course happens. The reality is that life as it is, is stressful and sometimes (or often) these situations creep up on us with little warning. I will be the first one to tell you I make plenty of mistakes as a parent. However, one thing I have tried to get right is modeling apologies. And please know, there have been plenty of opportunities to admit I did something wrong. From the time my son was 2 years old, I would try to model an apology when it was needed—especially if the apology needed to be given to him. We talked during calm times about when an apology is needed. We talked about how we can ask for forgiveness but it is never owed to us. We talked about how to do our best to make whatever was wronged, right again in some way--but that sometimes the things we do cannot be undone. I explained how even when its an accident, and someone was hurt without us intending to do so, an apology was still a wonderful tool to nurture the connection we have with others.

We will inevitably make mistakes with our children, say the wrong thing, or snap when we have the best of intentions NOT to. This is not unique to myself or any other parent. Where the difference lies, is in how we respond after the hurt has occurred. With each of these situations we have an opportunity to re-build and even strengthen our relationships. Children learn so much from what their adults do—we can use each opportunity to repair and nurture your child’s emotional well-being, while also modeling the behaviors we hope they will replicate in their own relationships throughout their lives:

Model apologies when needed:

  • This may be the most difficult, but also most critical step in my opinion. If I did something that warranted an apology, I tried to give one, whether it was to my son or my husband (and if we're being honest here, the apologies to husband were a bit more challenging--but maybe that's just me). If you are modeling an apology, let it be a proper one: Be specific to what YOU did that deserves an apology (e.g. leave out the “you” and "but" statements). I feel it is important to also make an attempt to make it right--while the spilled milk cannot be unspilled, the question "How can I help to make it right?" is an important step--even if the "making right" is just helping to clean up the spilled milk.

  • It is also important to keep the language age appropriate--a 3 or 4 YO may be able to understand a simple apology, "I'm sorry I yelled to put your shoes on, I will try to be more patient.", while a 5, 6 or 7 YO may be able to understand gradually more complex verbal information.

  • Let your apology be an apology--if something occurred that deserved an additional teaching moment with your child, then teach it---but at a separate time from the apology.

Talk about apologies during calm times:

  • As with so many things with children, it is best to talk about the specifics of an apology during times when both adult and child are calm. By the time a child is 4 YO, they should be able to understand this concept a little more that you can discuss and/or role play a bit. Find an episode of a show/character they like that may discuss this concept. We used the Daniel Tiger episode to talk about this, and it was convenient there was a jingle to go along with it that I could use to cue him when needed in a real-life apology situation.

Guide them through rather than lecture or command:

  • When your child does something that would benefit from an apology, walk them through it with love—keep the anger and frustration out of it. Try to view the situation as learning opportunity. They were not born into this world automatically having these skills, these things must be learned and most importantly PRACTICED. I might say the same thing about forgiveness.

  • Focus on what the other person might be feeling. This is often where I start when trying to guide my son towards an apology: "How do you think your friend felt when you grabbed that toy away from him?". If I just tell my son to apologize because he did _____, I have missed an opportunity to develop his empathy--and ultimately that is what should guide us towards an apology, not just because a parent "said so".

  • Let your apology be an apology--if something occurred that deserved an additional teaching moment, then teach it, but at a different time from the apology

Notice your own triggers and practice self-forgiveness:

  • Ultimately, once again parent self-care is needed—I may sound like a broken record on this, and that is OK--these are reminders for me as well as every parent out there. Situations involving our strong emotions of anger can be so challenging to navigate—learn to recognize your triggers and take the time out that you may need before tackling these conversations. Then forgive yourself--in order to fully model apologies and forgiveness, you need to be able to do this for yourself as well. Additionally, if you feel that additional help with understanding or managing your own emotions is needed, please seek out the support and resources from a qualified professional.

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