Focus on the Family

Sticking With Your Teen: Having to Say You're Sorry

by Joe White, Lissa Halls Johnson

"I'm sorry. What I did was wrong." Those words are rarely heard by anyone. They are heard even less by children. Then there is the ultimate rarity when a child hears it from his parents.

When my mom or dad tells me that, it changes things a bit. For a moment, I have to put aside my anger and my hurt and change my view toward them. For a moment, we are at the same level. I do not see them as authority figures, but as friends asking for forgiveness. The reason that I no longer see them as authority figures is because they are vulnerable. They no longer have the "parent wall" surrounding them.

It makes me feel better when my parents apologize, because they are realizing their mistakes and are righting a wrong. I see them as more than just parents, but friends as well. Apologies from my parents are rare, but when I get them, I never have any trouble saying, "You're forgiven."
—a teen

What are the words that can change a teen's life?

"I'm sorry."

"I apologize for ______."

"I was wrong. Will you forgive me?"

Need proof? Take a look at this teen's story:

OK, so about a year ago, my dad and I went to Nebraska – and it was a big deal because I had never been alone with my dad. So I was really nervous to do it. And we went and I don't know what happened, but I just totally lost it and everything came out. And we were in the car, which really wasn't smart because if things would've gotten bad I couldn't really escape or anything, you know.

So we talked about it and actually he apologized for everything. He started crying, and I've never seen my dad cry. He started crying and said that he was sorry that he'd missed the past 18 years of my life. There was no way he could get them back. That was really hard to do, but it was such a relief to finally know that at least he realized that he wasn't there and he realized he wasn't a dad to me at all. So, that was good to hear, especially the apology part.

The most powerful words we can say to our kids are also the most humbling – and sometimes the most painful.


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'Sorry' Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Asking for forgiveness is an admission that you've made a poor decision – and it can be humiliating to admit you're wrong – but kids say they respect their parents more when they apologize.

by Joe White, Lissa Halls Johnson

Nobody likes to apologize. It's embarrassing. We feel ashamed, sad, foolish. It's tough to get those words out, even if they're the only way to move beyond the wreckage of a parent-teen conflict and start healing.

Why is that difficulty multiplied when we need to apologize to our own kids? See whether any of these reasons might apply to you.

1. Until now, your child has looked up to you. Asking forgiveness is an admission that you're not perfect – which implies that maybe you don't always make the best choices as a parent. You're afraid this will cause your teen to doubt all your decisions, or to find further excuse to defy you.

2. It can be humiliating to admit you're wrong. It feels like assigning yourself to the penalty box. The truth is that it takes strength to acknowledge your faults, and can help your teen relate to you as a fellow mistake-maker – but it's not much fun.

3. You want to model perfection so your teen will strive for a higher goal. Unfortunately, models of perfection discourage kids who feel like they're constantly messing up. If they can't be perfect, why try at all?

4. You fear that if you admit you're flawed, your teen won't respect you anymore. Actually, the opposite is true. Kids say they respect their parents more when they apologize.


Why Apologize?

What happens when parents apologize to their kids? Understanding, forgiveness, closeness and love.

by Joe White, Lissa Halls Johnson

Does asking for forgiveness really reduce the distance between parents and teens? Can it defuse rebellion? These teens seem to think so:

The fact that my mom is willing to humble herself and admit that she has made a mistake helps me to respect her a lot. It makes it so much easier for me to apologize and want to change when she will meet me in the middle. It also makes it easier to identify with the things she tells me and helps me to pay attention to her advice by her taking away an attitude of superiority.

It greatly encouraged me that my dad thought it was necessary to confess his sin. It set before me an example of what is true and right. I will never forget this.

When my parents apologize to me it lets me know that we all make mistakes when we're young and old – and helps me realize that we're all in the same boat. It helps me see that they are trying hard, too.

When my parents tell me they're sorry, I feel as if they really do care about me and how their mistake affected me. It reminds me that they are not perfect either and that they are still learning from mistakes. Above all, their apology reminds me that they really do love and care for me.

My parents were always very quick to apologize. This is probably the reason that I don't remember any exact incidents where they hurt me.

My parents have never had a problem with saying, "Sorry." It never made me feel better right away, but I couldn't stay mad at them. And it made it a lot easier to say that I was sorry when I screwed up.

When my mom apologized, it helped me to see that she understood me. It made me feel closer to her.

When my dad apologized to me, this greatly improved our relationship. I stopped thinking of him as perfect and started thinking of him as a human. When that happened, I realized that I could hang out with him and be friends.

I don't know about you, but I can't read those words without wanting to figure out something to apologize to my kids for!


Where Do I Begin?

Saying you're sorry to your kids opens up plenty of possibilities – all of them good.

by Joe White, Lissa Halls Johnson

When it comes to asking for forgiveness, the hardest thing to do is take the first step.

1. Look into your teen's eyes. Don't glance around the floor or wipe the counter or dust the furniture while you're talking. Don't sit at your computer. Find a quiet spot away from other family members and make eye contact. Your teen may be afraid at first that you're going to lecture her about something she did, so don't be surprised if she squirms a bit.

2. Define the wrong; don't leave it vague. Name what you did that you shouldn't have done. For example, "I'm sorry I called you a ‘stupid kid.' That was insulting – and untrue, too." Or, "I'm sorry I didn't believe you when you told me your teacher was being unfair. I didn't take the time to hear you out."

3. Say those difficult words. "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"

4. Be quiet. Your teen might respond by granting forgiveness.

He might be stunned and say nothing. If he's still angry, he might say, "No."

What should you do if you get a negative reponse?

Smile. Pat him on the shoulder or knee and say, "I love you."

Then walk away – not angrily, but knowing that what you did to hurt your teen might take time to heal. Allow him that time. After all, if someone dropped a concrete block and broke your toe, would an apology take away the pain?

The Truth Will Set You Free

Asking for forgiveness opens up plenty of possibilities – all of them good. Here's what happened when one father took that awkward step. His son tells the story:

My dad asked to sit and talk with me. And I was like, "Yeah, sure." I sat down thinking this was just going to be another lip-service thing. My dad said, "Listen, I know you hate me. You've got a lot of reasons to hate me. I want to apologize for not being the type of father that you needed. I just wanted to get everything out on the floor and I just want you to tell me everything."

My dad was just so sincere about the whole thing. And he hugged me and grabbed me and said, "You're my boy … you'll always be my boy."

He was hugging me different. It wasn't like the hugs before – just a courteous hug. He grabbed me and embraced me like a brother.

Or like the Prodigal Son's father embraced his boy (Luke 15). As you may recall, that led to a whole bunch of partying.

Forgiveness is like that.


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