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Apologizing to your teen doesn’t mean you have ceded your authority

The problem

Is apologizing to your teenager a mistake? Doesn't it somehow undermine your authority as a parent?

Fourteen-year-old Kaylyn was acting like a spoiled brat. Her mother, totally fed up with her daughter's behaviour and already in a cranky mood, launched into an angry tirade.

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"Kaylyn, you're such a ungrateful brat. You really are. Such an ungrateful brat."

Kaylyn burst into tears and fled the room.

Kaylyn's mother immediately felt badly about her angry outburst. She wanted to say she was sorry to her daughter, that her words had gone too far. But she also felt that apologizing might be a mistake.

Doesn't admitting that she had done wrong set a bad precedent? Any time in the future where Kaylyn's mother might take an unpopular stance with her daughter, hadn't she given Kaylyn an opening – that all her parental stances were now open to question? Wasn't she being a weak parent? Wasn't she undermining the basis of her authority; "I am your parent and I am the one who makes these decisions"?

"Well, that's not fair. Just yesterday you admitted you treated me badly. Why should you get to be the boss? Why should I listen to you?"

What not to do

Don't worry about the authority issue. If they challenge, you always have:

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"Yes, I make mistakes, but I'm still your parent and you're stuck with that. And 'no,' your curfew is still 11 p.m."

"But it's not fair."

Being weak would be to back down because you felt your making mistakes took away your right to make unpopular decisions.

"It's true. I have no right to demand that you come in at 11."

"Excellent, you don't. Bye. I'll be home when I feel like it."

What to do

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Give an unequivocal apology with no qualifiers.

"Kaylyn, I'm sorry. I should not have said what I did. It was too mean."

Unequivocal. Not: "Kaylyn, I'm sorry. I should not have said what I did. But if you hadn't acted the way you did I wouldn't have gotten so mad."

Not good. It deflects the blame. That's a weak parent.

Being able to admit flaws, taking full blame, is a powerful message to give to teenagers. It comes off as strong, not weak.

And yes, they may try to take advantage of it: "Mom, since you admitted you acted like a brat, I'm allowed to be a brat too."

But if you stand firm when you feel the need to exert your authority, true apologizing in no way diminishes your parental strength.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at wolf@globeandmail.com.

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