When my daughter was in elementary school, she was perfect. Like, literally. She was respectful, obedient, hard-working, and kind.
Enter middle school. I woke up to a different human being living in my house.
All of a sudden she didn’t like anything she used to like. She didn’t want to go anywhere she used to want to go. She would rather be with her friends than draw oxygen. And if I tried to create boundaries around time spent outside our home, you would think I had killed her puppy.
Lots of slamming doors. Lots of loud sighing. Lots and lots of talking back.
Don’t get me wrong—she’s a great kid. But something about this middle school phase is bringing out the worst in both of us.
I remember one afternoon I was trying to help her pick out an outfit to wear to her friend’s birthday party.
“Mom. All the popular girls are going to be there. I have to look good.”
I did her hair. She took it down. I loaned her my favorite tennis shoes. She kicked them off in disgust. I offered her my favorite necklace. She rolled her eyes.
At one point, I lost my temper. “Nothing makes you happy! Nothing! All I do is try to make you happy and nothing works!”
She paused. Turned around. And she looked at me with tears in her eyes.
“Mama,” she said. “I’m just nervous.”
…Cue a Landslide of Parent Guilt
If I think about when I’m getting dressed to go somewhere important, I act the exact same way she was. Probably worse. I throw clothes on the ground. I redo my makeup three times. I try about thirty-seven hairstyles before I’m even moderately satisfied.
Why would I expect my twelve-year-old to act more mature than I do when she’s nervous about entering a new social situation? That’s one of my biggest downfalls as a parent—expecting my kids to behave better than I do as an adult.
“Hey,” I said. “Come here. Give me thirty seconds.”
She came and flopped herself down beside me on the bed.
“Listen,” I said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. That was rude. It was disrespectful. I know you’re nervous. I just want to help you. Will you forgive me?”
In that exact moment, the tension between us melted. That’s when I realized that there are a few key factors in learning how to apologize to a middle schooler.
- Admit what you (the parent) did wrong. Be specific. Own it.
- Explain why what you did was wrong. Don’t make an excuse. Be honest.
- Acknowledge their feelings. This may be the most important part. A middle schooler craves acceptance. And acceptance comes from knowing they’re being heard—they’re being understood.
- Finally, ask for forgiveness. Don’t just say, “I’m sorry.” Literally say the words, “Will you forgive me?” There’s something so humbling about asking to be forgiven. Something powerful about it that breaks down whatever walls the two of you have been building between each other during the conflict.
We made it to the party ten minutes late. But she didn’t care. What mattered most to her was that things between her and I were okay.
And I think that’s what middle schoolers need most right now—to know they’re okay. That who they are is enough. That there’s nothing they can do or say that could make us love them any more or any less.
In a culture that constantly tells them they don’t measure up, our apologies should communicate that they’re more than enough. That they’re worth our humility. That they’re worth our love and respect.