How to Break the Cycle of the “Female Apology”

It’s no secret that girls apologize more often than boys. The good news: parents can help raise confident girls by doing these things…

the female apology

At an early age, girls are often asked to apologize for things that boys may get away with. For instance, when a little girl takes a toy from another child, she may be told: “Give it back, and say you’re sorry.” Boys who do the same thing, however, may only be asked to return the toy.

According to psychologists, talking to boys like this doesn’t teach them to take responsibility for their actions. In fact, a 2010 research study found men don’t always realize when their behaviors hurt others, which is one reason why they apologize less than women do.

Age-old cultural messages have taught women to over-apologize, and we often say, “I’m sorry” more than we realize. Certainly, it’s common courtesy to apologize if you cut someone off in traffic, hurt a friend’s feelings, or arrive late for a work meeting. However, for many women, the “I’m sorry” button can get pushed whenever we assert our beliefs, show emotion, or disagree with someone.

Unfortunately, for many girls over-apologizing starts in childhood, gains momentum during adolescence, and becomes hard-wired in adulthood. According to the Child Mind Institute, boys and girls often receive different messages about how assertive behavior comes across.

For instance, boys who assert themselves by taking on leadership roles in the classroom, or in the community are often praised for being confident, self-driven, and independent. However, when girls do the same things, they may be labeled as ‘bossy,’ or ‘arrogant.’

As a result of these double standards, girls may grow up believing that people pleasing is more important than speaking up, showing confidence, or owning one’s accomplishments.

The good news: parents can intercept this cycle early on by teaching their daughters to express themselves confidently, ask questions without apology, and cope with conflict assertively.

Replace “I’m sorry” with “Thank You.”

Recently I saw a post on Instagram that suggested replacing apologies with gratitude. The author shared several examples, such as “Instead of apologizing for being late, try saying, “Thank you for waiting.”

We can put this wisdom into practice with our kids. If you see your daughter apologize for expressing a need, setting a boundary, or asking a question, encourage her to replace “I’m sorry” with “Thank You.”

Girls often apologize for their feelings by saying things like, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” While these words may seem harmless, according to mental health experts, they can be disempowering by discrediting a girl’s self-confidence.

Help your daughter get into the habit of owning her feelings, requests, and needs by teaching her when apologies aren’t necessary. For example, we often apologize when we can’t attend social events, but instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” encourage your daughter to respond with: “Thank you for understanding that I’m unable to attend.”

Use “I” statements.

When it comes to addressing feelings and bringing up conflict, encourage your daughter to replace the words “I’m sorry” with an “I” statement. For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry for getting upset,” she could say, “I’m upset because…”

The use of “I” statements can be empowering, which can help distill feelings of shame that may arise when we share emotions like anger, sadness, and disappointment.

Try fostering an ongoing conversation with your daughter by pointing out when you see girls and women on TV, at the store, or in your community apologizing for their feelings. Talking about these scenarios can be a useful way to teach your daughter how often women apologize, even when they shouldn’t.

Encourage assertive behavior.

When it comes to showing what they know, girls may hesitate to take the lead. Often, they believe that speaking up means they’re ‘bragging’ or ‘dominating’ the conversation.

Teach your daughter to embrace her knowledge by encouraging assertive behavior. Let her know that it’s okay to be direct when sharing her opinion or offering advice. See if you can catch when she begins statements with, “I may be wrong,” or “I’m not quite sure,” then help her turn these wary words into more direct comments that begin with “I believe,” or “I’m certain.”

Normalize conflict.

While many of us shy away from conflicts with loved ones, disagreements are a normal part of life. So often, however, girls avoid conflict because they’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Teach your daughter to face conflict by letting her know it’s okay to get angry, disagree, or feel disappointed.

Certainly, apologies may be necessary when friends fight, but resolving conflict doesn’t mean sweeping it under the rug. Show her how to express her feelings by using empathic and direct communication. For example, if she’s angry with a friend, she might say, “I understand we disagree and I’m angry because…” Practicing these types of responses helps bolster social and emotional skills that can foster intimate friendships and relationships throughout life.