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Why Parents Should Apologize When They Lose Their Cool

Maurice Elias | Dec 1, 2014

dad and sad son

Expert: Maurice Elias

Maurice
Elias
Dec 1, 2014

All parents will lose your cool at times. Why? Because you are human. You cannot handle unlimited amounts of stress, disappointment, and unmet expectations. Another reason is that our emotional brain systems, which are linked to our identity, lead us to feel badly, or inadequate, when it might appear that our children are not turning out as we would like. Rightly or wrongly, these kinds of strong feelings can lead to angry outbursts. 

But what does one do afterwards? Can hurtful words be erased? In large part, the answer is, yes.

An effective parental apology involves a deep understanding of our child’s feelings, a great deal of self-control, and good social skills. What it does for children is immense. It reassures them about their worth and their value in the world. It lets them know that their parents care enough about them to talk to them in a serious way and admit that they made a mistake. It allows children to learn humility, a companion of empathy. Finally, it alleviates the stress of uncertainty, shame, and doubt that children feel, over having provoked or, in their eyes, deservedly caused, parental over or under-reaction.

Learn more about how you can enhance your social and emotional skills.

Apologizing does not mean that you forget whatever your child did that was upsetting. Actually, it means that you clarify that some of what you said was hurtful and had to do with your own frustration. But there is a part of the message you want your child to get; here are some examples.

In each case, the opening lines are something like:

“I know used a tone of voice/yelled/said some things in a way that I should not have. I apologize for that. There was a lot going on and it got to me. So let me be clear about what I really wanted to say….”

“When you tell me you are going to be in one place and then you go to another, that is wrong. I feel as if you don’t trust me. I know you can keep track of what you tell me and you can remember to tell me where you are. So I expect that from you.”

“It makes me very unhappy when you hit your brother. It is not a kind thing to do. There are many times that you get along well with your brother, and I know that you can act this way much more often.”

As you can see, the apology follows the formula, “I was wrong to say what I did, it was the result of my stress, but here is what I want to make sure you remember and here is the strength I know you can bring with you into situations that might occur in the future…” You might also want to be clear about consequences as a result of what happened, or what will happen if the problem repeats itself.

Remember, your goal is to be more educational than punitive and to get the behavior in question to change. Another way to address these challenges between you and your child in the future is to get on the same wavelength, as you will likely have more positive results this way. The 4C’s of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, Clarify, Coordinate, Choose, and Care, are tools that can help you make your relationship more harmonious:

Clarify. One or both parents need to make a commitment to clarify what is happening with their kids. First, each parent must be clear. What is the issue here? What are the emotional issues involved for each child? What do I really think about presents? About school work? Why do I feel this way? Is this really what I believe or am I trying to impress someone, show someone something, or make a point? What do I want my kids to learn most of all from this situation? And am I showing my confidence in them?

Coordinate. Once each parent is clear, then it is time to compare views and find common ground. Where there is common ground, kids can feel a great deal of psychological safety. This is where they can be reached, and can thrive. 

Choose. Once there is some coordination, then choices must be made. “This is what we are going to do.” You need to take charge. There may be times where these choices can be informed by conversations with children, and this is especially true as they get older, but there are many times whenyou just have to decide and move on. This is a great favor to your children.  Uncertainty, lack of clarity, and parents who do not act like parents are frustrating, anxiety-provoking, and frightening for kids. The complaints that children will make about choices parents make are tiny compared to the relief they feel at finally having some clarity and some limits. And this is especially true when they feel both parents are in agreement.

Care. After the choices are made, it’s a good idea for you to show that they care about your child’s feelings. Emotionally intelligent parenting gives us a tool for this: keeping track of what happens. Are things going better as a result of the choices that have been made? Is there enough work time? Is the shopping getting done? Arrange check-in times just to see how things are going.  If necessary, the process can start over, as the new situation is clarified and new ideas are coordinated and new choices made. We show caring through our attention, concern, and follow up just as strongly as through hugs, praise, and little notes of encouragement. It is our way of saying that, as busy as we are and with all the things we are dealing with as adults, we have time and make a priority to see how our children are doing in important matters that a family has identified.

Expert: Maurice Elias

About the Author

Maurice Elias
Rutgers University

Maurice J. Elias is Professor, Psychology Department, Rutgers University and Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org). He has written Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children (www.researchpress.com), The Joys & Oys of Parenting (Behrman House), and a blog on Social-Emotional and Character Development (SECD) at www.edutopia.org.