How to Apologize: When “Sorry” Doesn’t Cut It

how to apologize

My children, ages 14 and 11, were walking the family dogs on a local nature trail while my husband and I jogged a short distance ahead. When we all met back at the park, my son was limping a little and steaming mad. He said his sister had stepped on his flip-flop clad foot and just ran away.

I looked at her. “Well? Did you step on his foot?”

“Yes,” she said. “But I didn’t mean to.”

“Well, then, did you apologize?”

“But I didn’t mean to do it!”

“Whether you meant to hurt him or not is irrelevant,” I replied, squinting as if to protect my eyes from the blinding absurdity of her statement. “You should apologize either way!”

She rolled her eyes and dripped out a sarcastic “sorry.”

This heart-warming moment made it clear to me that I’ve got some work to do in the area of teaching my children how to apologize with sincerity. (And by “some work” I mean to say that I have failed on a scale so colossal, I’m dumbfounded. Can they revoke your Mom License?) Sorry is just a word, but a true apology contains a couple of important elements, like accepting responsibility for the offense and doing what you can to make it right. Here are 5 components to a proper apology you need to teach your kids.

Help them understand that a lack of intent doesn’t make an apology unnecessary.

Just like my child, many children will assume (or hide behind) the idea that you only need to make amends when you intentionally harm someone. But hurt is hurt—intentional or accidental—and when we realize it has happened, we need to make it right.

A good apology accepts responsibility.

Many times, what offended people want most is our acknowledgement that we did something that hurt them. Train your child to restate what they did wrong in their opening apology statement. “I’m sorry I said you couldn’t play with us. That wasn’t nice…”

A real apology is sincerely expressed.

The authenticity of an apology is more in the delivery than the words. Teach your child to look the other person in the eye, to refrain from any hint of sarcasm or residual anger, and to communicate with honesty and humility. Truly, this is the hardest part.

With apologies, sooner is better.

Teach your child to take care of business in their relationships by apologizing promptly when necessary. The longer an offense hangs in the air between two people, the bigger it gets. That being said, they also need to understand that late apologies are better than none at all.

A sincere apology will offer to try and make it right.

With your preschooler, this might look like, “I’m sorry I knocked over your Lego tower. Can I help you re-build it?” Between siblings it might be, “I’m sorry I borrowed your jeans without asking. I’m going to wash and iron them and return them today.” Sometimes the offer of restitution will be declined, but we should teach our children to offer to do whatever they can to restore the situation when they’ve messed up.

Is there an element of a true apology that we missed?


  • brooke

    What do you suggest to do or say when you you have a similar scenario to your article (stepping on foot) and you calmly explain the importance of apologies and your “strong-willed” child refuses to apologize??

    • Dana Hall McCain

      Great question, Brooke. Strong-willed kids can be hard to lead when it comes to matters of the heart. However, I think the bigger issue in the scenario you describe is the willful disobedience of refusing to even try. In our home, intentional disobedience when directed by a parent to do something always comes with a consequence. Granted, in this case it probably won’t result in the authentic apology we’re looking for, but getting the apology right is secondary to the issue of outright disobedience. So in this case I would impose a consequence, and make sure my child understands that it’s as much for the disobedience (refusal to try apologizing) as for offending or hurting the sibling.

    • Kim

      Same — what if “strong willed” child has 2 sets of earbuds and refuses to use them while listening to loud music in a shared space and really annoying others? She gets violent when you try to take away the PC.

      • Single Dad

        Not sure how old these children are but it would seem they need to understand that their actions have CONSEQUENSES. And enforce them, even if it is inconvenient. Do you think your child’s future professors, employers, husband/wife will appreciate their behavior down the road?

  • mommy of 4

    My 2-year old voiced yesterday the emotion every human feels when we’ve wronged someone, but have been trained NOT to express-pride. When asked to apologize to his twin brother that he had just tackled to the ground for frustrating him, he said, “Me not want to say dat word!” Gotta love the honesty of a 2-year old!

    • Dana Hall McCain

      I can think of lots of instances when I didn’t want to “say dat word!” (Ha! – toddlers are hilarious…) But you’re right–pride is a huge stumbling block that keeps us, at all ages, from saying we’re sorry when we should. Great observation.

  • Nicole Henshaw

    I am SO GLAD to see an article on this topic!!!!! I am a mother of two amazing girls ages 11 and 7. I constantly tell them all the time, just because you say you are “sorry”, if it’s not from the heart, then it means nothing. We talk about how, why, and that I’m sorry from the heart means you accept responsibility for what you did and you will try your best not to do “it” again. Thank you for writing about such an important topic that everyone needs to teach their kids. The word “Sorry” is abused way to often in today’s culture. I’m sorry is a big deal in our house, for the sake of my girls and their future. After fighting 7 years to save a 15 year marriage. I finally accepted that I could not shoulder the problems any longer and gave it all to God. Through this battle I have lived and experienced my husband repeatedly abuse the word I’m sorry, which leads to forgiveness and then the vicious cycle continues unless someone takes a stand and says no more. I hope that this article will not only help other Mom’s to realize the importance for their children. I also hope that it will not take 7 years of someone else’s life accepting “I’m Sorry” too many times for the same thing. Together we all can start to make a difference for the next generation. Thanks iMom, all of you are awesome!

    • Dana Hall McCain

      Wow. You are so right, Nicole! Teaching our kids to “own” and take full responsibility for their mistakes will have a major impact on the way they function in their adult relationships. It’s so important to help them grasp it now (while the stakes are small) rather than in adulthood where marriages, jobs, and far greater things hang in the balance. Thanks for sharing your story, and we hope you’re successful in changing the story for your girls!

  • Myika Ramirez

    I am beginning to notice that my four year old daughter is learning this skill best from me. I started apologizing to her with great sincerity a few months ago whenever I did something that hurt her. If I lost my temper, I would come to her, sit her on my lap and hold her while I apologized for losing my temper. I would explain to her what I was feeling at the time (frustration over her behavior/lack of cooperation) but that it did not excuse my yelling. I would then talk to her about how we can work better as a team to communicate so that we can avoid feelings of frustration and anger. Then I would ask for her forgiveness. Now she comes to me and apologizes when she has done something to me or her sister. I find that modeling this behavior is most effective in teaching them how to be sincere in apologizing.

    • Dana Hall McCain

      Great job, Myika! Modeling the behavior is a wonderful way to teach. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  • Amy

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been struggling with this with my 4yr old. His sincerity has been severely lacking. I like having the follow up (that wasn’t nice, can I help rebuild) to the “I’m sorry” as part of the apology, it really gets to the root of why you’re apologizing to start with.

  • Stephanie

    Thanks for posting this! We used this as our Family Home Evening lesson tonight. You made some great points. I would also add learning how to accept an apology. I think that is also a big part in sincerely apologizing. Thanks again! 🙂

  • Leon Dungey

    I’m not a regular here. I actually stumbled across your site but I am a 64 year old father with 3 sons, 9 granddaughters, a great grandson and, 2 great granddaughters. You’re article really touched me and the lessons you’re advocating are not just for the children but many of us adults should learn them as well. You’ve given me a lot to consider. I will sharing these very valuable lessons with my family. Thank you and keep on touching peoples lives. GOD bless you all.

  • Winter Whitney

    Great article: We have a situation where my daughter’s friend got mad and stewed about it all summer. Her mom called the day before school started to tell me about it. After discussing it with my daughter, she wrote an apology note. The mother was pleased and said they are fine now. But, I see the way her daughter looks at my daughter and you can tell she is not okay. We used to carpool with them and now we don’t. I am so sad and wonder what else we should do. Any suggestions?