The Art of Apology


Everyone makes mistakes that can hurt someone else’s feelings. And at some time in their lives, nearly everyone has purposefully hurt another’s feelings. Most people have also done something (on purpose or not) that has ruined a material object belonging to another. When a person learns to truthfully apologize for their mistakes or misactions, they and the harmed person feel better. An honest apology builds relationships.

Too often adults expect young people to apologize when it isn’t necessary. They say things like, “I want you to apologize for …” and are in essence requesting a social nicety. What they get is an apology that carries no weight. It’s a muttered, “Sorry,” without eye contact and with no intent to change the situation either in the present or the future. 

An honest apology comes with a sense of regret and a decision to not repeat the behavior, or with a solution for what has occurred. It’s an effort to build a bridge between the two people involved. This kind of apology does not come naturally to most!

Honest Apologies

Children learn through modeling. Teens continue what they learned in childhood, and watch for clues from their parents for how to behave during their adolescence. If parents know how to authentically apologize, children and teens learn the skill too, at least rudimentarily. 

Let’s say that your teen borrows a blouse, and when she returns it you notice she has spilled something on it. In frustration you say, “Can’t you ever be careful with what I loan you?” When she slinks away in shame, you recognize your mistake. You cannot retract your words, but you can apologize in a way that reconnects you to your daughter. You might say, “I’m sorry that I was unkind when you returned my blouse. I was frustrated and reacted  unthoughtfully.” You modeled a correct apology. You took responsibility for your words and behavior; you followed the words, “I’m sorry” with an explanation of what you did.

Now let’s look at the teen’s behavior. When she returns the blouse, she may say something like, “Something got on your blouse. Somebody knocked into me while I was eating.” Many teens initailly blame their inappropriate actions on someone or something other than themselves. Instead of demanding an apology, which would be given without remorse, you might teach her what you would like. You could say, “I don’t really care how the stain got on my blouse. What I would like is for you to problem solve how we can fix it. You could say to me, ‘I spilled food on your blouse. I’m sorry. Could you help me wash it?’” An interaction like this teaches the teen that an authentic apology comes with an effort to remediate the situation. It also tells her that she is not a bad person.

Parenting teens can bring challenges. It also brings excitement as you see your adolescent grow into a responsible young adult. Sometimes parents are intimidated by their teen, thinking that they will be rebuffed if they make an effort to teach them appropriate behaviors. Effective parents do their job even if their teen does snub them now and then. Teaching how and when to apologize is part of what parents need to do.

Why Apologize

The purpose of an apology is not to admit guilt. It is to reconnect with another when there has been a break in the relationship. Most teens do feel bad when they hurt another. Whether they verbalize it or not, they want to have relationships, not alienation. Teaching teens how to mend relationships with apologies that express both the current feelings and what the future behavior will be does just that.

Posting a list of words teens can use in an apology can assist them in learning the process. Some words that work are:

  • “I’m sorry I was mean to you by talking behind your back. Please forgive me.”
  • “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
  • “I apologize for losing the book you loaned me.”
  • “I’m sorry that I ruined your class notes. I’ll be more careful next time.

The flip side of teens learning to apologize is parents learning to apologize when they’ve  hurt their child’s feelings through inconsiderate words or behavior. This is a humbling act. Rarely do children and teens expect their parent to apologize to them. When they do, even though parents are the authority figure, the playing field is leveled for a few moments. Children recognize that their parents are human and vulnerable. Compassion results, even if only for a short time.

Some ways to apologize are to say:

  • “I apologize. I didn’t mean to….”
  • “I’m sorry that I spoke disrespectfully to you. I’ll be more careful about the words that I choose.”
  • “I was wrong when I …. Will you forgive me?”

Focusing on bridging and building relationships instead of on blame and guilt is not what we traditionally think of when we consider the idea of apology. When understanding  it in this way, however, we remember what is important – relationships that are mutually satisfying to everyone involved. When we teach our children to apologize by mending breaches in relationships, we are giving them a tool that will assist them throughout their lives.  

Carolyn Warnemuende
About Carolyn Warnemuende

Author Carolyn Warnemuende has two daughters and five grandchildren, and lives with her husband in Redding. She writes parenting and educational articles, sponsors a school in Uganda, and visits Africa twice a year. She receives great joy in taking daily care of her four-year-old granddaughter who was adopted from Ethiopia.


  1. David Paris says:

    An underestimated and underutilized art to master….nice article. Thanks Carolyn!

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