When Sorry is the Hardest Word

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When Sorry is the Hardest Word

Parenting with the five languages of apology

By John Lim | 17 November 2021

Saying sorry is difficult. After all, as the parent, you are supposed to know what you’re doing. Telling your child that you’re sorry seems an admission of weakness, that you didn’t actually know what you were doing. That you are imperfect.

But somehow, it’s difficult for us to apologise. Even when we know we should.

In this article, we will explore what makes an apology. Specifically, we will cover:

  1. Why is it so difficult to apologise?
  2. Why don’t your apologies work?
  3. How can your apologies work better?

Over time, sweeping things under the carpet does nothing for the relationship.

Why is it so difficult to say sorry?

Growing up, each time my dad disciplined me, he would come afterwards and say gently, “John, sorry for scolding you just now. I hope you forgive me.”

I didn’t fully appreciate his apologies until I got to secondary school. I had gotten into trouble for insulting the discipline master on Facebook.

It seemed like I was going to be expelled. When I sat in the meeting room with the discipline master, the form teachers, and other school heads, my mum looked at me and asked, “John, why did you write this?”

I didn’t know what to say. Sitting in the car my dad rented for the day to take us home, I was silent. I didn’t know how to apologise and I didn’t want to. But deep down, I knew I should.

Maybe you’ve reached a point in your relationship with your child where you know you should apologise but you don’t know how.

This is why it’s difficult to say you’re sorry.

Sometimes we think that if we leave things as they are, time will eventually heal and we will all move on.

Unfortunately, old wounds can fester. Over time, sweeping things under the carpet does nothing for the relationship. At best, you and your child ignore what has happened. At worst, it may become a silent war.

Why don’t your apologies work?

You’ve probably experienced this; where someone hurts you and said she was sorry, but deep down, you wish she could have done a bit more (to show that she was sorry).

Surprise, surprise! Just as there are different love languages, there are also different languages of apology. According to Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas’ book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, there are five.

  1. Expressing regret - saying “I’m sorry”
  2. Accepting responsibility - saying “I was wrong”
  3. Making restitution - making it right
  4. Genuinely repenting - saying and showing, “I want to change”
  5. Requesting forgiveness - asking, “Will you forgive me?”

This may help you understand why your apologies don’t seem to work with your child. After all, you’ve eaten humble pie and asked for forgiveness, and crafted it in the “correct” format. Why doesn’t it work?

The apology isn’t about you. It’s about ensuring that the other party accepts the apology.

Remember the apology is not about you

I’ll admit, I’ve done many apologies in the past where I say sorry just for the sake of it. With technology these days, it’s even easier. Type the letters, S-O-R-R-Y, and you’re done!

Your apology may not be working because apologies are two-way. As much as apologies are given, they also need to be accepted. The apology isn’t about you; it’s about ensuring that the other party accepts the apology. This means that you need to frame the apology in terms of what works for your child, instead of what works for you.

How do I know what apology would work for my child?

The easiest way is to ask your child. You might say, “I’m really sorry for what has happened. How can I make it up to you?”

If that doesn’t work, try all five languages of apology, and see what works.

It may also be helpful to know what apologies work for you. Knowing what works for you helps you to look out for how others apologise to you. It helps you to improve your own apologies.

For example, there was once when a colleague shared my misdemeanours in front of others in an email, copying the rest of my colleagues. I felt ashamed, small and undignified. I stopped talking to him after that. During a team meeting some months later, that colleague apologised in front of the team.

Because the colleague did not specify what exactly he was sorry for, the apology did not work well for me.

That incident taught me to frame my apologies in terms of what others wanted, instead of what I wanted. You may also find these questions below, taken from Chapman and Thomas’ helpful:

  • What do I expect the other person to do or say?
  • What hurts most deeply about this situation?
  • How do I apologise to others?


My dad and I once had a cold war that lasted five months. I finally broke the ice by taking the first step to apologise while we were out for a walk on day.

You may think this is very big of me, but all that I learnt about apologies, I learnt from my dad.

It was he who took the lead to mend our relationship whenever he scolded us. It was he who ate humble pie and said “sorry” even when I was clearly in the wrong.

Saying “sorry” is never easy. But as what my therapist would say, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”

Don’t wait for the right moment because there isn’t one. If we have learnt the different languages of apology today, the next step is to apply them.

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


Many struggle in their transition from school to adulthood. John has created a framework that allow young adults to succeed and overcome challenges in their early career at liveyoungandwell.com. He is a Registered Social Worker who works in the social services.

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