How to apologize to your teen

April 3, 2019 Providence Health Team

When apologizing to a teen, keep it authentic, short and kind, and without strings attached.

Apologizing is a good opportunity for role modeling.

Apologizing can be hard, so parents should be easy on themselves and not expect to be perfect all the time.

Ask any parent of a teenager, and they can tell you that life can sometimes be a bit bumpy. Everyone is figuring out how to navigate the child’s growing sense of independence and the parent’s responsibility to continue imparting discipline and upholding household rules, and sometimes those two things don’t always mesh. That means disagreements or arguments can ensue.

As a parent, there may be times when you need to be the one who apologizes to your teen. Kathryn Anderson, LMHC, a family therapist at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA, offers tips on how to apologize effectively and well.

Make sure your apology is sincere.

If adults are good at picking up on inauthenticity, teenagers are even better, Anderson says. She adds that the word “sorry” comes from the word “sorrowful,” so in order to truly be sorry you have to feel sorrowful about your actions. “Don’t use the words ‘I’m sorry’ until you actually feel it,” she says. Anderson says if you don’t yet feel sorry for your actions, slow down and identify something that you do feel sorry for, such as your teen’s hurt feelings. “It’s not necessary to agree with your teen’s feelings; feelings are feelings,” she says. “If you can authentically say, ‘I am sorry that your feelings are hurt,’ then say that. It’s possible for us as parents to do a correct parenting action but still result in the kid’s feelings being hurt — we’re not discounting our actions by acknowledging and apologizing that feelings were hurt. Two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time.”

Always be kind.

This may be hard to remember in a moment of conflict, but that’s all the more reason to slow down and be reflective before apologizing. “Your tone should not be defensive or aggressive, which we can do sometimes with the teens that we love,” Anderson says.

Keep it short and simple.

When there is a point of conflict, for teens or adults, the region of the brain that assesses and responds to threat turns on. In turn, that shuts off the region of the brain responsible for logic and taking in language. “It’s already going to be hard in that moment for your teen to hear you, so you want to give them as little language as necessary to take in,” Anderson says. “There are several reasons why we tend to use big speeches in moments of apology. It can be uncomfortable to own when we hurt someone’s feelings or make a mistake and we want to run through it or justify our actions. Or, we want to use it as a teaching moment to remind the kids that maybe they did something wrong, too. But the more language we use surrounding the apology, the less likely the apology will register in the kid’s brain.” If your teen’s feelings got hurt, say something such as, “I’m really sorry that my words hurt your feelings. If you want to talk about it in a little bit, I’m here,” and leave it at that.

Don’t expect anything in return.

An apology isn’t meant to deliver teens a lecture or lesson, nor is it to be used to justify your actions or pressure your teen into an apology. Usually, if there’s an interaction you need to apologize for, it’s not a one-way street, and the teen probably has something to apologize for, too. But don’t push too hard. “We want teens to practice being authentic in their own apology, so trying to pressure them to immediately apologize back probably is not going to work,” Anderson says. “You want to give your teen time to process your apology before expecting anything back.”

How you apologize to your teen matters because, as parents, we are modeling to them the ability to own our mistakes, and sit with that discomfort in owning them, to someone who matters. “That is a really hard skill, but they pay attention to what we do way more than the speeches we say,” Anderson says. “Also, in those moments we are demonstrating to our children that their feelings and their boundaries do matter. It is important to show respect to our teens, that when we mess up we own it and acknowledge it. We won’t discount their experience because they are the kids and we are the adults.”

Of course, there are gray areas when it comes to apologizing — for instance, if a fight takes place right before school, and you and your child will be apart for the rest of the day. In cases like that, if you can send an authentic, kind, short text that offers an apology and the chance to talk at home, that can help. If that’s not feasible, it’s fine to wait until you can sit down together, in a quiet place away from distractions.

Talking with your child is important in maintaining connection, even in the wake of conflict. If you have apologized and your teen hasn’t wanted to follow up, you can circle back, in a couple of hours or a couple of days, and check in to make sure everything is OK. If you get the sense your teen has moved on, trust that: “You know your kid,” Anderson says.

Knowing your teen will also help determine whether to incorporate physical touch into an apology. “It depends on the kid and the parent and the dynamic between them. If the relationship involves a lot of physical affection, it can be soothing to feel a hand on the back or the shoulder, or even sitting next to each other,” Anderson says. “If the kid has a pretty big bubble around her, being in the same room and using kind words may be intimate enough. Trust your gut. Sometimes putting your hand close to them lets them know you are there without overwhelming them with touch. If you’re in that majority of parents of a teen who doesn’t know if it’s a good day for physical affection, it’s OK to ask. Follow your kid’s lead that day because their needs will shift. It’s another way to communicate respect for your teen’s boundaries.”

If your teen’s actions require a consequence or she needs to process something she’s done wrong, you can address that, but Anderson recommends putting some space between that and the apology. “Once things are reset, whether it’s a few hours later or the next day, you can say, ‘I know this is tough, but we need to talk about what you did,’ and discuss any consequences. That way it can be more clear in the kid’s head that you owed her an apology, but now you’ve moved into how you can help them reset, too.”

Finally, Anderson encourages you to go easy on yourself when it comes to apologizing to your teen. “Our society in general struggles with owning when we hurt someone’s feelings. It is very hard to do, and we all have a tendency of wanting to reduce the knowledge of how much we’ve hurt someone we care about. I want to remind everyone how good it feels when someone who loves us has hurt us and is willing to own it and sit and repair it with us — we feel heard and acknowledged. Be gentle with yourself, because it’s hard to do parenting perfectly.”

Do you have other parenting questions you’d like answered? Download our Circle by Providence app, which has provider-approved advice on a wide range of parenting topics, health tools, checklists and resources for busy moms and dads:

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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