How To Apologize to Teens Without Losing Power

I’m going to let you in on a big secret: I struggle to apologise! And I’m a trained therapist. I, of all people, should know better. 

But when you grow up in a family that struggles to apologise, you develop habits. 

Let me be clear: growing up, it wasn’t like there was a rule that said “don’t apologize” or some mentality that other’s didn’t deserve apologies. It was more that when we hurt someone’s feelings we felt so bad and horrified at what we had done that we tried to explain our intentions in the hopes that the other person simply wouldn’t feel so bad anymore. As if we could erase the pain and start over. 

My family never wanted anyone to feel bad. We would do anything to take away those yucky feelings. 

Explaining and justifying was a strategy to keep the love and the warmth. But looking back, it had some ill-intended effects. 

It’s good to look back because sometimes we don’t fully understand the impact of our relationships growing up and reflecting helps us determine what habits and values we want to continue forward with our kids, and which ones we want to retire. I’m ready to retire the “no apologies” habit.  
To be fair, I’m not an advocate for walking around saying “sorry” constantly. I think sometimes there ought to be a rule that says “don’t apologize”. For example, so many of us are living a life saying “sorry sorry sorry for existing”, when we shouldn’t apologize for taking up space in this world! In cases like this, being firm about your needs, wants, and boundaries is important. 

But when it comes to hurting feelings or making mistakes, an apology can go a long way in saving a relationship or reputation. And yes, reputations as a parent matter. 

Not to other parents – but to your kid! They matter a lot. 

Let’s begin with the main question: Why do people not apologise? 

Typically people don’t apologize not because they don’t care, but because they actually feel so bad that an apology actually makes them feel more shame, humiliation, and deep deep inner pain. 

Let me explain: Many people who don’t apologize are doing so because their inner sense of self can’t cope with the fact that they hurt someone. It makes them feel like a bad and unworthy person. NOT apologizing helps them regain some sense of stability and sense of self. 

Sometimes it hurts too much to admit they did something painful to someone else and they feel so unworthy as a person that if they apologize it’s like confirming they are indeed a bad person. That they are unwanted and unacceptable to others. These people believe mistakes are an indication of their failure as a person.

So, not apologising is a way of making themselves feel better. Its a coping strategy!!

but even though the reasoning behind ‘no apologies’ makes total sense from a compassionate lens, what a ‘no apologies’ family teaches you is that it’s shameful to take responsibility or accountability. That it’s better to explain, justify, defend, than to own up to the fact that you goofed up. When we double down on defending as a way to remove the pain of the mistake or to make the mistake all better, what we end up doing is entrenching it further. 

How so? Here’s is what is it like to never hear an apology: 

It feels like your experience of a situation was wrong or doesn’t matter. And to a teen not only is that hurtful, it’s actually incredibly confusing! It teaches them that their needs and boundaries are inaccurate and their perception of the world is completely skewed. It teaches them they do not have power as if they are standing on a trap door at all times waiting for some other person to pull the lever. No wonder they act out and communicate in ineffective, passive, or aggressive ways. How else can they make their needs and experiences heard?

How can we teach them to be confident, resilient, and well-adjusted when in the space they are supposed to feel most loved and safest, we give them the impression that they can’t even properly read social cues and that their feelings are completely off. It’s destabilizing. 
When we don’t apologize we teach our teen’s that their feelings don’t matter and that they can’t trust their inner experiences and perceptions of the world. This has devastating effects for their ability to enforce safe boundaries as they grow up. 

It also teaches them to carry on the habit which affects our relationship with them: Many teens feel they are bad people (60% of teens and tweens in Canada report poor mental health!!!!!) There is an epidemic of teens feeling so much pressure to be perfect that they inevitably feel unwanted. 

So every time they are told to apologise (especially when they never hear YOU apologize) they think “oh great another thing I failed at”. It actually becomes too much for them. They are at emotional capacity. Fragile and ready to crumble.
This may result in a super anxious teen always walking on eggshells trying to please everyone around them. OR a teen that is so scared that they lash out and are constantly defensive, constantly retorting with “yeah, well, YOU did this…”. 
So let me ask you. What would happen if next time you messed up with your teen, you simply said “hun, I’m so sorry! I messed that up”

You don’t lose power and authority by apologizing. You gain trust, safety, connection and respect. 

A teen who respects you is a teen that can trust you when things go wrong for them. That is a teen that feels safe in the world and will grow up strong and capable.