Learning to Apologize

There are a few key parenting mindsets that I build each of my monthly articles around. If you’ve been reading this column for a while you will see some repeating themes – integrity (walking our talk), taking the long view instead of getting caught up in daily struggles, and seeing things from a teenager’s perspective. These are important areas to focus on at all times. Here I will discuss some techniques to boost your competency as a parent across all of these skills.

Asking Kids to Apologize
If you’re like most parents, you started asking your children to apologize as soon as they could talk. It seemed like the right thing to do. You thought it would help them be a kinder, gentler friend. I have to let you know this is somewhat flawed. Remember when your toddler grabbed a toy out of her cousin’s hand? You told her, “Say sorry!” In social situations we might fear other adults judging us as not keeping our young person in line, and our actions might be more about wanting approval from our peers and less about guiding our kid.

How Humans Learn
Research shows that as children develop, they learn how to act by watching and imitating the behaviours of the grown-ups they are closest to. Observing what people they trust actually DO, and copying THAT, is a more reliable survival strategy for little ones than doing what they are told. This means that our kids will learn how to apologize by watching us do it. And just like anything else we want to teach them, we will need to demonstrate over and over how it’s done.

The Purpose of an Apology
Apologizing comes out of the recognition that you have hurt someone, and you feel ashamed or unhappy about it. It’s a way of saying, “I made a mistake!” to repair relations, even if the harm was minor or non-existent. If I step on your foot or speak an offending joke, I should be able to tell you are physically or emotionally injured by looking at your reaction. If I wish to stay warmly connected to you, or be in your good books, or not be regarded as a selfish nitwit, I will say sorry.

Note that the first step here is to look for the reaction. If you’re not paying attention and you miss the fact that you caused an upset, you have now caused a second upset. This could require an additional apology.

One of the worst apologies is “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Please don’t ever say this. It basically means, ‘I feel bad that you feel bad,’ which translates into, ‘don’t make me feel bad.’ This is NOT an acknowledgement that you have done harm to someone, which is what an apology is supposed to be.

Doing it Right on the Wrong Side of Town
Parents can make dozens of mistakes a day. We might be too demanding, we might be ignoring, maybe we’re distracted, or rough. The list is extensive, and the opportunities to model a good apology are abundant in family life. Here are some useful steps to take with teens:

1. Acknowledge what you see and what happened – “you look mad that I didn’t wash your uniform.”
2. Allow them to express themselves and listen – “you said you were doing laundry yesterday! I needed it clean for today!”
3. Take full responsibility – “I did say that. I intended to do laundry because you needed your uniform for today but then I forgot.”
4. Say the apology – “I’m sorry I didn’t do what I said I would and I let you down.”
5. Ask how to make amends – “Is there a way I can make this better for you?”
6. Commit to your promise to make amends and follow through.

Lastly, an apology is not an agreement that your teenager will be pleased with you or offer forgiveness. If they continue to feel hard done by, that is the truth of their experience. It’s not their job to make you feel better about a mistake you made.

Relationships are tricky, but a solid apology is a tool you can focus on to work through conflict.