It's Hard to Say "I'm Sorry"
By Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC
As parents, we’ve all been there. Your child calls her sister a name, replies to you with a sarcastic tone of voice, or any other typical childish behavior that warrants an apology.
“Now say you’re sorry,” we tell them.
Embarrassed, or angry, or exasperated, we get an apology: A muttered “Sorry” and a quick exit.
Apologies are hard for all of us. How can we help our children grow through the process of making an apology? How can we help them know that a one-word apology doesn’t actually make a difference when it is nothing more than a platitude? How can we help them experience the relief and reprieve of admitting a wrong and the benefit it gives both people involved?
Part of the reason that making an apology is so difficult for individuals of all ages is because it requires us to show ultimate vulnerability. We have to admit that what we did was wrong and we recognize the harm it caused. Any apology with less than full acceptance of responsibility of wrong-doing is ineffective.
Many of the children and teens I work with in my practice are perfectionists. This makes recognizing a mistake and apologizing for it especially difficult. Not only do they have to admit their mistake to themselves, they also must then publicly request forgiveness. This skill is an important in overcoming perfectionism: Helping them recognize that it is okay to make mistakes and push through the uncomfortable feeling of admitting their mistakes is a big part of overcoming perfectionism.
Here are the four steps that you can walk your child through to make an effective apology.
You may have to work with your child on one step at a time. I have found the third step (recognizing another’s emotions) is often the most difficult for kids to do. Tweak these steps to make them work for your child. For example, you might ask your child to write his or her apology if speaking it aloud is too difficult or emotional. Or, you could allow your child to do the first two steps to the person that has been wronged and simply talk about the second two steps privately, until they are ready to integrate them into the apology. Remember that apologies also don’t necessarily have to be immediate; if your child’s emotions are too strong just after a situation to say they are sorry, give them time to cool down and process. Just don’t forget to follow up.
Making an effective apology is more than good manners. When done appropriately, effective apologies build emotional awareness, increase the ability to show vulnerability within relationships, and teach children that when we place others’ emotions first, we have stronger relationships.