Combine a stressful pandemic year with an abundance of together-time and parenting mistakes are inevitable. But often we overlook the importance of saying "I'm sorry" to children.

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An image of a child hugging their mother.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

My first-grader had a recent school vacation that, in normal years, would have been a welcomed respite. But thanks to COVID-19, it meant five unstructured days with my seven-year-old while I worked. One afternoon, I suggested she start a pastel portrait as I snagged a time slot for a grocery delivery. From the kitchen table, I directed her on how to get set up, but she forgot to cover the dining room chair with a towel and smeared red pastel all over it.

"I told you to cover the chair!" I yelled at her as I steamed the furniture clean. She cried. I was angry with myself for exploding and frustrated that she was irresponsible. Then I wondered what I was supposed to do next.

For me, a consequence of pandemic anxiety combined with scarce alone time has turned me into a more short-tempered mother to my kids. Needless to say, the guilt I've racked up is real—and I know I'm not alone.

Parents can have a hard time divulging blunders to their children because they believe apologizing equals weakness. "They have the idea that if they admit any mistake, they will lose control and the child will jump in and walk all over them," says Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., director of Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children 2 to 5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success. This is a common misconception, but it's far from the case.

Here, experts offer up their best tips for apologizing to kids in a way that will be helpful for everyone.

Recognize Their Hurt Feelings

"It's scary for a child when a parent is upset with her," says Dr. Klein. "If you show her you genuinely recognize you hurt her feelings, it illustrates that you will both come back together and the relationship can be repaired."

As an apology, I could've said, "I'm sorry I overreacted and yelled at you about the pastels. I know that made you feel bad. Next time I'll try to show you what I mean first so you don't have to worry about the chair." Dr. Klein stressed that I should apologize for my wrong-doing but not for expecting her to properly prepare her workspace. She said setting routines and asking for help in the form of age-appropriate chores sets limits for kids.

Accept Responsibility for What You Did Wrong

Susan Shapiro, a college professor and New York Times bestselling author interviewed many adult children who felt wronged by their parents as kids for her new book The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. In all cases, they expressed wanting to feel heard, understood, and loved. "Acknowledgment of the mistake, offense, or insensitivity is the first step to apologizing properly," she says.

Explain Why It Happened

"People aren't always self-aware," says Shapiro. "They get entrenched in roles, and changing a dynamic is hard." If you give kids a reason for why your inappropriate behavior happened, it humanizes you and creates space for compassion.

She suggested this as an apology to my teenager when, on another occasion, I rudely waved her off as she looked for some one-on-one time: "I'm sorry for being so stressed out from the pandemic. I wish I had the power to make everything go back to normal. I was so frustrated that I couldn't finish my work that I pushed you away without listening."

Show It Won't Happen Again

"An apology is about recognizing your own behavior," says Dr. Klein. "It doesn't mean you have to run circles around your kids to make up for what you did wrong. A genuine apology shows empathy and connection, helping with the child's relationships later in life." To show my little one I'll plan to try harder next time, I could've added: "The next time I'll try to take a deep breath instead of yelling at you."

Be Clear and Concise

Saying you're sorry concisely and sincerely shows kids that no one is perfect. "You want them to understand that if they happen to mess up in life, it is okay," says Shapiro. Dr. Klein adds that as kids get older, a good apology teaches them "there is room to repair and to reconnect especially if they've hurt someone."

Offer Reparations

In her research, Shapiro learned from Molly Howe, author of The Good Apology that it's helpful to ask calm, neutral questions. Asking, "How do you feel?" might illuminate what happened in a different way than you perceived the event. Following up with, "How can I make it up to you?" can elicit concrete restitution geared specifically towards how the person felt.

After hearing that my teen loves doctor shows, Shapiro said I could add this to an apology: "Want to chat tonight over hot chocolate and Grey's Anatomy?" Offering this sort of reparation validates my daughter's feelings and makes her feel she was heard. Giving her something she wants, to spend time together, strengthens the fact our relationship is important to me.

Always Say the Words "I'm Sorry"

Sometimes wrong-doers try to repent in other ways. They'll perform acts of kindness and bestow gifts. But Shapiro said all of the adult children she interviewed one thing was true: "Other things can stand in for an apology, but in every single case the person still wanted to hear the words 'I'm sorry.' The stand-in restitution felt like compensation without the sincere recognition of the offense."