So Sorry! - The Importance of Apologizing


What do you do when…

… you’ve said something inappropriate to your child, even if provoked?

… you’ve said something inappropriate to your spouse?

… you receive an insincere apology from a family member?

… you think you deserve an apology from a family member?

   It’s bound to happen, and generally none of these situations is consciously meant to cause harm. But when it does, communication between family members can become emotionally charged.

   Relationships that hold negatively charged feelings become toxic and distant if those feelings are not addressed.  The good news is they can be repaired, and the process of doing so is part of growing and learning.  When we feel regret for our misdeeds, we can take what was once wrong and make it right again.


Why Bother Apologizing? 

   Family members — spouses, siblings, parents and children — who apologize to each other create a foundation of trust, safety and the ability to clean up wrongdoings. When spouses take the necessary risk and apologize to each other for misdeeds, their relationship can move on. When children witness this, they learn about mending discord.  When children experience apologies from their parents, they feel better because their feelings matter.   And not only can a genuine apology undo harm, it can raise awareness that will help to avoid or deal with future conflicts.


What Do We Apologize For? 

    We apologize when we say or do something hurtful in the heat of the moment. We apologize when we say or do something that we instantly regret or we justify. We apologize when we make a promise that we don’t keep by letting other commitments get in the way. We apologize when we overstep a boundary, leading to embarrassment or offense. We apologize when there is a misunderstanding of intention or sarcastic comment. 

   We don’t have to apologize for setting limits and providing consequences that children need. We also don’t have to apologize because our child is unhappy that he isn’t getting his way.


Getting Off the Hook

   Some parents believe they don’t have to apologize to their children because they are the grownups. Or they defend misbehaviors they say their children provoked. Maybe they’re ashamed of their behavior but are too proud to admit it.

   Parents have choices. Even if a child has pushed a parent’s hot buttons, the child isn’t responsible for the parent’s reaction.  It is a parent’s job to find a way of responding that demonstrates good behavior.  If she doesn’t, she owes an apology for her contribution to the problem — without tagging on, “You made me do it.”

   An apology without meaning isn’t an apology at all. An empty apology is saying you’re sorry without addressing what caused the inappropriate behavior. It breeds further conflict. Understanding what led to the misdeed is necessary for change to happen and before an apology can be given.

   Our children will not lose respect for us if we apologize. To the contrary, they will gain respect, not only for our sincere apology, but also for our efforts to change a hurtful behavior pattern.


What an Apology Achieves

   When apologies don’t happen or don’t work, problems persist, real communication halts and emotional distance increases. But with genuine apology come benefits for both parties.


For you:

  Demonstrates your willingness to accept responsibility for your actions

  Helps you forgive yourself for wrongful behavior

  Helps you accept your imperfections


For the other person:

  Validates the injured person’s experience

  Creates the opportunity for forgiveness

  Heals bruised feelings


For your relationship:

  Clears the air so anger, resentments and hurts don’t brew

  Makes room for positive problem solving so you can move forward

  Reinstates closeness, love and caring


Want to Remedy the Situation?

1. Cool down.  If you are still too angry or hurt to think clearly, take some time alone before continuing the conversation. 

2. Think about what happened and why.  Assess your feelings by thinking about how you would describe what happened to someone else.

3. Recognize that you made a mistake.  Accept this responsibility.  

4. Apologize simply and directly. Express regret or sadness at the hurt, anger, embarrassment or disappointment you have caused. 

5.  Apologize for your behavior, not yourself. Say, “I am sorry I lost my temper and called you lazy and worthless.”  This is more effective than saying, “I’m sorry. I am a thoughtless and impatient mother.” 

6. Don’t excuse your behavior by blaming your child. Don’t say, “If you hadn’t been late, I wouldn’t have gotten so angry at you.” Saying “I’m

sorry, but…” is accusatory.  Instead, say: “I should have dealt with my feelings differently. It wasn’t right to get so hotheaded and say hurtful things to you as I did.”

7. Save the discussion about the underlying problem for another time. Apologize first. Later, you can review the situation and discuss how to handle similar problems in the future.

8. Be sure to ask for forgiveness. Say: “I was wrong. I really let you down by breaking an important promise.  Will you please forgive me?”  This reinforces your feelings of regret while giving your child an understanding of the power of forgiveness.  If your child is still angry or hurt and doesn’t immediately forgive you, there may be more to talk about, or you just may need to give it time.  We all digest apologies in our own way and at our own pace.

9. While it is neither necessary nor wise to air marital laundry in front of your children, it is okay to let them see you apologize to your spouse when you have acted inappropriately.  But be sure you deliver the apology in a way your children can handle.

10. Help siblings work out disagreements and learn to apologize to each other.  Wait until each is truly ready to talk rather than push for a

quick recovery.

11. Deal with one issue at a time. Don’t confuse or overwhelm the relationship with past unrelated issues.

ROBERTA RACHEL OMIN, LCSW, has a private psychotherapy practice in Ossining and Rye Brook.  She specializes in parent coaching, child/family therapy, couples counseling and individual psychotherapy. For more information: (914) 941-8179 or