Apologizing and Making Amends

Aug 28

Dr. Tiffany Spanier

Apologizing and Making Amends

by Dr. Tiffany Spanier


Apologizing and Making Amends

Parents often want their children to learn the importance of an apology. An apology, when genuine, can be a powerful way to repair a relationship. But what is the right way to apologize? And what is the process that may be needed to get to a genuine apology? How do we help our children learn this skill of apologizing, when saying “I’m sorry” can even be challenging for adults?

A genuine apology often requires we recognize that someone has been hurt by our actions. When this occurs, it can be helpful to pause and reflect. First, it is OK to take a moment to look at the situation from our own point of view.

  • What was our intention?
  • What emotions and state of mind were present?
  • Was my action a source of disrespect, revenge, or ill will? 

Next, take a moment to notice the impact of our actions.

  • What are the other person’s emotions and experience based on our actions?
  • How can I try to understand the other person’s point of view?
  • Finally, do I have an opportunity to make amends?
  • How can I move forward with respect and kindness?
  • Am I ready to offer an apology?

Let’s reconsider the above process in a different manner. What would happen if someone were to be hurt by our actions, and then immediately someone chimes in with, “Say you’re sorry”? This may be what is happening when we are trying to teach our children to learn how to apologize. This type of forced apology has the potential to undermine the process of empathy and compassion. Not to mention, a forced apology can actually lead to more conflict and confusion, instead of resolution and repair. 

I asked my children, if they were hurt by someone, would they want the other person to fix the problem or say, “I’m sorry”? If they had to choose, they both preferred the problem to be fixed. But they agreed, if they could have both, they would feel a more complete resolution.  So how can we help our children cultivate the skills to learn how to make amends and, when ready, provide a genuine apology?

  1. First, if someone has been hurt, then emotions for both individuals may be running high. Try to begin by giving them and you a quick pause or moment. This can provide the space needed to allow for awareness, guidance, and help. A simple “stop” or “hold on” or “wait a minute” might suffice. 
  2. Next do a quick check in with yourself. Often the solution seems very obvious to us. But see if you can shift the desire from wanting to instruct, to allowing your child to learn by experience. By helping children learn a process, it is more likely they will be able to complete the process on their own in the future.  
  3. Now try to take in the situation. You are probably recognizing one child has been hurt and the other seems confused or upset. Keep in mind; both children are actually “hurting” - “Hurt people, hurt people.” How can we acknowledge the feelings of both children? It may be helpful to be physically closer to the child that was hurt in order to provide a gesture of reassurance and protection. But we also need to turn toward the other child that is “hurting.” It may be helpful to verbally acknowledge their feelings. You can say something like, “Bobby ate the last cookie.  That was upsetting because you didn’t get any.” Helping children describe a situation and name their feelings can sometimes help their feelings seem less overwhelming. It can also let them know that you are trying to understand how they are feeling.
  4. Next we can try to help them empathize and problem solve in order to find a way to make amends. We could start with something like, “How do you think Bobby is feeling?” “What do you think we can do to help him feel better?” or “What could you do to make it right?” Your child might naturally respond with a gesture or an apology. If they are having difficulty coming up with a solution, then it is OK to offer some suggestions. This also might be a time to incorporate, “Maybe a ‘sorry’ might help.” But keep in mind, some children need to take a period of time after their misbehavior in order to get to a more sincere “sorry.” 
  5. Later, it can also be helpful to discuss prevention strategies. In the future, can they begin with using words instead of direct force? How can they solicit help from an adult when they are feeling overwhelmed? “Next time, what do you think you could do differently?”
  6. Lastly, modeling appropriate behavior is always another valuable way to teach and influence our children. So, see if you can practice this process then next time you are involved in a relationship rupture. 

As no one can be expected not to make mistakes, we are going to have plenty of opportunities to put these skills into practice. So let’s try to be supportive of our children, help them learn a process for making amends, and allow then time to formulate a genuine apology. 

Dr. Tiffany Spanier is a pediatrician in the Allegro Pediatrics Bellevue location.