How to Apologize to Your Child

It's a fact: all parents make mistakes from time to time. Mighty Mommy shares 4 ways to make it right when you have a parenting fail. 

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #519

Saying sorry is difficult enough when you have to apologize to an adult, but it's even harder when we have to make amends with a child. Regardless of whether your child is three or thirty, if you ignore the wrongdoing and don’t address how your actions made your child feel, you can potentially cause long-lasting damage (and waste a great teachable moment).

Mighty Mommy has experienced her share of parenting mess-ups over the years, but has learned that the sooner you make it right with your child, the better. Here are four ways to say you’re sorry and let the healing begin.

4 Ways to Say You’re Sorry

  1. Own Your Wrong
  2. Make an Age-Appropriate Apology
  3. Make It Right
  4. Creative Ways to Apologize

Let's explore each one more closely:

Own Your Wrong

I’m a pretty emotional person so I tend to parent with my heart on my sleeve. Because of that, when I do something that isn't great, I sense it instantly. 

For example, this past week my son who is away at college is living off campus this year. Because of that, he doesn’t eat at the university cafeteria. We budgeted an amount that would cover his groceries and I regularly load a shopping card at a nearby store as well.

He’s approaching graduation this spring and without my knowledge, he and his father decided that he should quit his part-time job as a lifeguard so he could focus on wrapping up his senior year. Weeks later, I learned of this news when I called to make sure he knew I’d added money to his grocery card. He thanked me and casually mentioned he’d quit his job because his father thought it was best. Without waiting to hear any of the reasons behind this decision, I made a snarky comment that I didn’t appreciate his getting to take it easy while I would probably be picking up the financial slack to cover his spending money.

Not one of my finest moments.

After we ended the conversation, I sat quietly for several minutes replaying my response in my mind.  I immediately began to justify my harsh reaction, but then I realized that I was rationalizing. I had the choice of how to respond and I chose to judge him rather than letting him explain his reasons.

The first step in apologizing is reflecting on what you did wrong and being adult enough to own it. Admit to yourself that you overreacted and could have handled the situation better.

Make an Age-Appropriate Apology

Once you’ve come to terms with what you’ve done wrong, it’s time to say you’re sorry.  One reason that grown-ups find it uncomfortable to apologize is that they equate it with shame. Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham argues that this is likely because many adults were forced to apologize when we were kids.

In How (and When) to Apologize to Your Child, Markham explains that apologies are important, teachable moments and that an apology can help make the person you’ve hurt feel better about you. She also cautions to resist the urge to place blame during an apology: “Many of us start to apologize and then veer into excusing ourselves because the child was in the wrong. Sure, I yelled—but you deserved it! We all know, though, that two wrongs don't make a right. Besides, we're the adult. It's our job to be the role model.”

Say you're late to pick up your seven-year-old from soccer practice several days in a row. She's the only one waiting in the parking lot with the coach, wearing her cleats and a sad dog expression. As youpull up in your car, she yells at you, in front of the coach, “Mommy, where have you been? Why are you so late?” We all know these things happen, but when you're repeatedly late, it makes her feel unimportant.

First, acknowledge her feelings of frustration. Empathize with her that it was probably terrible having to wait alone with the coach while all the other children had been picked up.

Next, admit that you simply lost track of time, admit to feeling badly about it, and promise that it won't happen again. Look at her eyes when you’re talking and be sincere in your words. (Oh, and don’t forget an apology to the coach—in front of your child—for keeping him waiting too!)

See Also: 10 Ways to Become a More Organized Parent


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.