Guidelines for saying ‘I’m sorry’

Published 5:29 pm Saturday, August 30, 2014

QUESTION: My teenager has a very difficult time apologizing when she has been involved in negative behavior. I know she will have an easier time with future relationships if she is able to say she is sorry effectively. Are there guidelines I can share with her?


ANSWER: We apologize because we really want to, to restore a relationship, to relieve a guilty conscience or to avoid punishment. Whatever our motive, Dr. Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist who has written extensively about the importance of repairing damaged relationships, identifies the following important parts of a successful apology:

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First, we have to accept responsibility. It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry for what I did.” We need to be specific and identify the offense. For example: “I betrayed you by repeating what you told me in confidence.” “I made you do a lot of unnecessary work.” “I realize that you were embarrassed by what I did.” “I let you down when I broke the family rule of no drug use.”

Second, we should try to explain why we did the offending action in the first place, hopefully making the point that what we did wrong is not the way we would usually choose to act. “I was tired after a really stressful day.” “I reacted like I used to when my older sister gave me directions.” “I was really disappointed at not being able to go with my friends.” It might be appropriate to take a problem-solving approach: “Can we sit down and talk about how to try and keep this from happening again.”

Third, we have to show that we really feel sorry. When we communicate regret or sadness, we are showing that hurting someone else means something to us. When psychologists talk about the consequences of “attachment disorders,” they are referring to the problems that occur when a child, youth, or adult is not capable of empathizing with someone else’s emotional distress or physical pain.

Fourth, sometimes an apology is not enough. For example, if we break something or take something that doesn’t belong to us, saying “I’m sorry” is inadequate. We also need to think about repairing the damage. If we honestly do not know how to even the score, we might say “Please tell me if there is anything I can do.”

Perhaps we all need to be reminded that an apology reflects the belief that the harmony of the relationship is more important than one person being “right.”