Every parent knows how easy it is to say hurtful things to their children. Some of us explode in streams of words. Others of us coldly level our kids with sarcasm. Still others drip with manipulation and self-pity. The ways to speak foolishly are endless, but each one proves false the adage that “words can never hurt me.”

Words can and do.

So what do you do afterward, when you can’t take back what you’ve said? There are a number of things that will make that moment worse—defending or excusing yourself, pretending it wasn’t that bad, ignoring what you did, trying to beg or buy your way back into your child’s good graces, or just hoping they’ll get over it. None of those strategies will rebuild a broken relationship.

Thankfully, the gospel can.

The Old Testament sacrificial system pointed to a deep truth in our relationship with God: He created a way to live with people who would continue to fail both him and each other. That system pointed beyond itself to what Christ would pay on his people’s behalf, but even in its embryonic state, God’s message was clear: Your sins do not have to end your connection with a holy God. There is a way to live faithfully with him in his world—even after failing him.

That’s not just good news in general; it’s good news specifically when you’ve sinned against your child. Here are some ways to live that out.

1. Remind Yourself of God’s Grace

Remind yourself of what God has done to ensure that his goodness—not your sin—has the last word (Rom. 3:21–26). Remind yourself that nothing—not even your foolish words—can separate you from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39). Remind yourself that he delights in you because he has changed your heart to love him and his people (Deut. 30:6–10).

2. Be Sobered by Your Sin

Let yourself be sobered by what you’ve done. Our tongues are so hard to control—the apostle James would say impossible (James 3:7–8)—because they provide an outlet for the restless sin nature that never quits fighting against God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Speaking hurtfully gives you a glimpse of how hostile your sin is toward God and those made in his image. Let that reality sink in—not to discourage you, but to strengthen your resolve to wrestle with it daily.

3. Stop and Think

Take a moment to think. Proverbs describes the fool as someone who gushes without first considering what he’s saying and the potential effect on others (Prov. 12:18, 23). By contrast, the wise person is intentional and careful with words (Prov. 15:28). Speaking badly means you’ve played the fool, but praise God, he has redeemed you to become wise. Live now what he has remade you to be.

  • Think about what led to you saying what you did to your child.
  • Think about what you wanted in that moment that was more important to you than loving them.
  • Think about what you wish you’d said in response to what they were doing.

4. Take It to God

The remedy for sinning against someone else (James 4:1–2) involves dealing first with your sin against their Maker (James 4:7–10). God has commanded you to love your neighbor—and your child, along with your spouse, is your closest neighbor. Every horizontal sin, including speaking badly, is first and foremost vertical (Ps. 51:4). So deal with that higher-order sin by confessing it to God and receiving his forgiveness before attempting to work things out with your child.

5. Go and Use Healing Words

Humble yourself and go to your child (Matt. 5:23–24). Ask if they have a minute. Tell them you really wish you hadn’t said what you did. Tell them what was going on in your heart that was wrong. Be careful not to blame them or what they were doing for what you said. Own your bad reaction as your issue, not theirs. Ask them to forgive you for what you said. Invite them to talk about how they felt if they want to, but don’t demand that they do.

Be careful not to blame them or what they were doing for what you said. Own your bad reaction as your issue, not theirs.

6. Check Your Motives

Ask yourself if this is a good time to talk about what they did, too. It might be, but be careful not to make your apology a backdoor way of confronting them. Remind yourself you’re apologizing for what you did wrong because you want to restore your relationship, not so you can tell your child how wrong they were. You can always come back later to address their issues.

7. Make Better Memories

Last, consider what you can invite your child to do with you, such as play a game, bake cookies together, take a walk, kick a soccer ball, watch a movie, or plan a trip. You can’t erase the bad memory of what you’ve done, but you can make new ones that give your child a different, better experience with you. In time, those new memories will push out the old ones.

Good News for Bad Words

Behind the glory of the gospel, going all the way back to the first sin in Eden, is the God of a million second chances. This great God comes to his believing people when they’ve fallen—and when they’ve fallen again—and says, “My child, get up. Because Christ has gotten up from the dead, no story has to end in tragedy. Every single one can be redeemed, even this one with your kid.”