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Learning To Say, “I’m Sorry”

Saying You’re Sorry Is a Skill that Benefits Parents and Children Alike

Pushing my cart through the grocery store, I scan the shelves of soups, questioning the strategy behind the arrangement of the cans. At last locating the chicken broth and cream of asparagus, I guide my buggy toward the end of the aisle, lost in a fantasy of alphabetically organized soups and canned vegetables.

Turning the corner to proceed past the cereals, Wham! I accidentally run the shopping cart right into my 12-year-old son. His brain under the influence of Lucky Charms, he had excitedly bounded erratically down the aisle, passing directly in front of my moving cart. Before I could stop, one of the front wheels rolled over his heel and the metal bow bumped his hip.

“Ouch!” he howls.

“Watch where you’re going!” I snap, irritated.

Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word

Why is it so difficult to say, “I’m sorry?” Pamela Hayward, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of Augusta State University’s Department of Communication and Professional Writing, offers several explanations. Many times, the offender fails to detect that anything is amiss. He simply doesn’t know that the other person was negatively affected by his words or actions. Alternatively, an individual may not extend an apology, despite seeing that the other person has been harmed in some way, because she doesn’t believe responsibility for the harm rests with her.

An apology may also go untendered in cases when discussing the event brings up feelings of shame that the offender would rather avoid. In some cases, an apology may be viewed as a sign of weakness. In terms of our close relationships, Hayward says, “We expect our family to love us unconditionally so we tend not to be as quick to apologize.”

Apologizing is a learned form of communication. It requires a message sender and a message receiver. Though the sender believes that he did apologize, the receiver doesn’t always interpret the message as an apology. Hayward notes that the perception of whether a sincere apology occurred is individual to the target of it.

Confusion over whether or not someone actually said, “I’m sorry” may be a result of how the apology is delivered. Apologies are generally rendered in one of four ways, which, depending on the receiver, may or may not be effective.

Indirect apologies rely on body language or facial expressions or may be wrapped in humor. The words “I’m sorry” are not said, but rather intimated through some other gesture or verbalization.

Conditional apologies come with expectation of something in return for the apology. These apologies are usually composed around the words “I’m sorry, but...” or “I’ll apologize to you, if...”

Mediated apologies are delivered over the phone, in a note, via email or in another way that does not require face-to-face interaction. Mediated apologies allow a person to accept culpability and express regret while shielding himself from the shame or the guilt associated with the event.

In contrast to the other three types of apology, direct apologies—the ones victims of a wrong most desire and are most likely to recognize as an apology—are verbally presented face-to-face without excuse or asking for, or expecting, anything in return.

The Importance of Apology

Even though they may not be uttered as often as we would like, apologies are social conventions that allow us to get along and live with other people—at school, at work, in neighborhoods and at home.

When a wrong occurs, whether intentional or unintentional, it creates strain between the perpetrator and the target. “It’s like a tug-of-war,” says Valerie Utton, author of Letters of Apology: How to Stop Waiting for Permission To Be the Wonderful Person You Are. “And while the situation exists, there is tension between the two people. The best way to release the tension is to drop the rope,” to say, “I’m sorry.” Hayward adds that, beyond relieving interpersonal stress, “Apologies prevent or repair damage to the relationship.”

Hallmarks of a Sincere Apology

An apology involves recognition that someone was wronged, acceptance of personal responsibility for the wrong, a feeling of remorse and an act to repair the situation. It’s not complicated. Utton breaks an apology into three critical parts:
“I’m sorry” + naming the offense + “you” = An Effective Apology.

Including “I’m sorry” is the essential. It indicates acceptance of personal responsibility for the negative action or harm.

Naming the specific hurtful behavior or words clarifies for both parties what took place and demonstrates an understanding by the apologizer that this behavior is unacceptable.

Adding “you” brings the person receiving the apology into the equation. It helps her hear it and know that it is meant especially for her. Often, a verbal “I’m sorry I tripped you” is enough to repair any damage done to the relationship and diffuse conflict.

“While it shouldn’t come across as an auto-response that is meaningless, it should happen in a timely fashion,” advises Faye Rogaski, founder of Socialsklz:-) Tools to Thrive in a Modern World ( According to Rogaski, a sincere apology shows remorse, acknowledges that harm was done, is initiated by the offender and is delivered with confidence. Utton adds that the apology should have no conditions, should not include a request for forgiveness and should never contain the words “but” or “if.”

Teach Your Children Well

“Apologies aren’t inherent,” says Utton. “To say you’re sorry is a learned social behavior.” It bears repeating that a child’s first teachers are his parents. Modeling proper and appropriate apologies—parent-to-child, parent-to-parent, parent-to-friend, parent-to-stranger—is highly effective in helping children learn to extend an, “I’m sorry.”

For children ages 6 and under, teach them to say, “I’m sorry,” as incidences occur. Ask for an explanation of what happened. Help develop empathy by talking about a time the child was hurt in a similar way. Discuss alternative behaviors to the hurtful one. Rehearse the apology with the child, including all three parts outlined by Utton. Encourage the child to apologize and accompany her to do it. Even if the apology does not come out as rehearsed, don’t correct it. There will be plenty of opportunities for practice.

As children get older, the emotions surrounding apologies become more complicated. Children’s ability to discern right from wrong also improves. Along with exploring alternatives to the offending behavior, Utton suggests that parents also, “Make the distinction between getting what you want, which is okay, and hurting someone to get what you want, which is not okay.” Older children may still need guidance in organizing and conveying an apology.

Rogaski astutely acknowledges, “Many people fear making things worse with an apology, but in reality, it’s an indispensible part of healthy human relationships.” Children need to witness their mothers and fathers genuinely saying I’m sorry to one another. They need to practice saying it themselves. And they need to hear their parents admit fault to them.

My reaction to crashing into my son with the shopping cart makes my heart sink. I lashed out in irritation, wounding his spirit as well as his heel. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry I bumped you with the cart and I’m sorry I snapped at you.” His posture relaxes. He smiles. It’s a relief to drop the rope.

Lucy Adams is a freelance writer and the author of If Mama Don’t Laugh, It Ain’t Funny. She lives with her husband and four children in Thomson, Ga. Email Lucy at and visit her Web site,

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