You’ve made a mistake. You’ve been impatient or dismissive or shaming; you’ve made a choice, perhaps unintentionally but it’s one that you didn’t want to choose. What do you do now? Where next?
It can feel so tempting to avoid or downplay what you’ve done; if we don’t talk about it, maybe we can all just forget it happened. Realising you’ve done the wrong thing is so uncomfortable, acknowledging it is even more difficult. Wouldn’t it be better to not?
But do you really want your child to process this alone?
If you leave this to sit with your child, without explicitly pointing out that what happened was not okay, they might not come to that conclusion. They could blame themselves, they could feel as though they deserved this kind of treatment; they could absorb that this is an appropriate way to treat themselves and other people.
This is the actual words; I’m sorry! Let them know you are honestly remorseful about what has happened and be specific about what you are apologising for.
Acknowledge what you have done why that it was unacceptable. It is important to be very clear that it is in no way because of something your child did. Our minds are really efficient at self-justifying; especially if you were parented in a authoritative paradigm. Being able to rationalise harmful actions was a way of protecting your trust in your parents and this is why it is so important that you break this cycle with your own children. Your children want to trust you, when you do something untrustworthy they can either find you unworthy of trust OR they can find themselves worthy of the action you took. Taking responsibility offers a third option; I did not deserve this AND my parent is worthy of trust because though they made a mistake they have been honest and up front about it. It wasn’t okay when it happened to you and it isn’t okay now.
Listen and Empathise
Listen to their perspective on what happened; without interrupting or trying to alter their perspective. Listen to understand, not reply. Show that you have heard them by reflecting back things they have said rather than interjecting your own thoughts. Show them empathy by validating their feelings. Again; how a person feels is completely reasonable (even if the choices they make based on those feelings are not).
Explain (without justifying)
It can be helpful to give names to our emotions and to be honest about things that we find difficult so that our children have blueprints for doing similar. It is important though to distance the reality of how we feel from the actions we take; being upset is valid, yelling is not. Distinguishing this prevents us from slipping into justifying our choices.
Offer ways in which you plan to make different choices in the future. How will you prevent this? Demonstrate that you are committed to resolving the issue and then follow through. Actually make serious considerations for things that will enable you to succeed at being the parent you wish to be and that your children deserve. This does not mean that you cannot make mistakes again but that you are willing to do whatever you can to reduce these instances as much as humanly possible.
Rush a Resolution
Your remorse should not be conditional; when we apologise with an outcome in mind, it becomes disingenuous. Your child is entitled to their feelings and their process, these can take time. Trying to force them to talk through to forgiveness is not appropriate or respectful. It is your responsibility to create circumstances that inspire forgiveness but it is your child’s responsibility to forgive and therefore, it is their choice when (and if) they are ready. Expecting forgiveness has no place in a genuine apology.
Excuse Your Behaviour.
There should be no “buts” attached to your apology. It really isn’t relevant what you might feel your child did to provoke you; there is nothing that excuses treating them disrespectfully. And yes, that even includes if they have been disrespectful to you; that was their choice and responsibility, your reaction is yours. Also avoid apologising for their reaction such as I am sorry that you were hurt as this suggests that you regret their feelings, not your actions. Be sorry for YOUR choices, without qualifying terms.
Dismiss Their Reaction.
Do not suggest in anyway that how they feel is incorrect or invalid. It might not be how you would react but their feelings are completely real and genuine to them. You do not get to determine what is and isn’t appropriate in regards to another person’s emotions. If a person is not given the opportunity to travel through their emotional process, this creates a future trigger that will continue to be provoked until it is properly addressed.
Beat Yourself Up.
Yeah, you have made a mistake. It sucks. The reality is though that that moment has now passed and you cannot change what has happened. What you can do is make choices in this moment now. You can ask yourself: how can I approach this moment now in the best possible way? Beating yourself up only takes energy away from improvement. Live the truth of how you would want your child to treat themselves if they made a mistake. Mistakes happen, it is what we do next that matters.