Ever stumbled for a good way to say you're sorry?

Don't worry, science has your back. Researchers at Ohio State University recently broke an apology down into six basic components and asked over 700 people to rate which ones — and which combinations of them — were most effective.

Want to know what the six elements were?

No list is complete without examples, so let's take the catchiest apology ever — "Apology Song" by The Decemberists — as our test subject. (If you don't know the song, by the way, it's about apologizing to a friend after letting their bike, Madeleine, get stolen. You can listen to it here.)


1. First, an "expression of regret." In other words, say you're sorry.

Alas, poor Madeleine. Photo from iStock.

This is a simple one and maybe not as important as some of the other elements in this list, but it's remarkable how many times people try to apologize without, you know, apologizing.

So how do The Decemberists measure up? Pretty good. They nail this one right at the beginning of the song:

"I'm really sorry, Steven, / But your bicycle's been stolen."

Pretty good! But what's next?

2. An explanation of what went wrong.

I can't help but notice the conspicuous lack of bikes here, Colin. Photo from iStock.

It's a good idea to explain what happened. An explanation isn't an excuse, but it can help the aggrieved person understand the circumstances.

So, Decemberists?

"I meant her no harm / When I left her unlocked / Outside the Orange Street Food Farm. / I was just running in / Didn't think I'd be that long. / I came out, she was gone."

Takes them a little bit to get to it, but it's in there. Doing good so far!

3. An acknowledgment of responsibility: "It's my fault."

Photo from iStock.

OK, this is a biggie. And is actually one of the most important parts of an apology, according to the study. If something is your fault, admit it.

Let's check the lyrics:

"I was watching it for you / 'Til you came back in the fall. / I guess I didn't do such a good job after all."

That last part — "I didn't do such a good job" — that's the key. It was their fault, and they're willing to admit it. So far, they've been hitting all the right notes.

4. A declaration of repentance – "I won't let it happen again."

Like this times a thousand. Photo from iStock.

Showing that you've learned a lesson and are taking steps to make sure it won't happen again is another important point.

Unfortunately, it's one that The Decemberists miss in this song. If they wanted full marks, they should have explained how they were going to invest in some super-duper bike locks or a personal bike guard dog or something equally anti-theft.

In verse, of course.

5. This is another big one: offering to make it right.

I hope Madeleine 2 gets some sweet flame decals. Photo from iStock.

Ouch, another one The Decemberists missed, and it's a biggie — saying how you'll fix the problem.

So what could The Decemberists have done differently? Well, they do say:

"Where has she gone? / Well, I bet she's on the bottom of a Frenchtown pond."

This is the point where they should have sung about breaking out the scuba gear or draining the pond to get to poor Madeleine. (Ponds are apparently completely filled with bicycles anyways, if that canal proves anything.)

Or, you know, getting them a new bike. But scuba diving's more fun.

6. Lastly, a request for forgiveness.

Photo from iStock.

This is actually the least important part of the apology.

"That's the one you can leave out if you have to," said the study's lead author, Roy Lewicki, in a press release.

But it's always good to include it if you have time. And on this, The Decemberists nail it again:

"So I wrote you this song / In the hopes that you'd forgive me / Even though it was wrong / being so careless with a thing so great."

The most effective apologies contained all six elements, according to Lewicki, but admitting fault, offering a fix, and giving an explanation seemed to be the most important combination.

As to why those three were most important, the authors think it's because they most directly address the original violation of trust while the others are more ephemeral.

Remember, though, this isn't a cheat sheet. If you're not genuinely sorry, it means nothing. And even if you hit the high-score best apology of all time, the other person doesn't have to accept it. And that's OK.

So how did our band do? Altogether, The Decemberists get 4 out of 6. They left out two elements, but nailed some of the big ones. So I'd definitely accept that apology.

If you need to apologize and are stumbling for words, remember this:

"I'm sorry, it was my fault. Here's what happened. I won't let it happen again, and here's how I can make this right. Forgive me?"

Hopefully that'll help patch up any bike-related mishaps in your life.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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