4 Steps in Practicing Apologies (And Boy, Are They a Practice!)

You witness Big push Little - hard. Little child starts wailing. What next?

We might want to censure Big immediately, some version of Why did you do that?!? We don't push, you know better! Or maybe we comfort Little and ignore Big, thinking that we reinforce negative behavior if we give Big attention. This brings us to step 1. 

1. Model empathy. 

We may not know everything that led up to the push. Or, maybe Big is tired and hungry, so not at their best. There's always context to behavior. And everyone makes mistakes!

One component of an authentic apology is feeling empathy for the injured party. If we want to teach our kids how to have true empathy - understanding from another person's perspective - we need to model it ourselves. It's super hard when we observe overly aggressive or otherwise anti-social behavior in our kids. But we need to see this as a normal part of their development. Because it is! Not only do they not have all of their self-regulation muscles developed, they also are truly experimenting all of the time - with their bodies, their emotions, their relationships.

Our job is to accept their mis-steps and compassionately guide them in more pro-social directions. 

2. State What You Observe.

How do we express compassion for all of the parties involved, even the aggressor? A place to start is to state what you observe, as neutrally as possible. Non-judgment is an act of compassion. You could say: 

Little, you're hurting, I'd love to give you a hug. Are you okay? I'm so sorry you're hurting. 

Big, it seems you are pretty angry to push like that. Or, Let's take a break together (while holding Little and/or Big). It's likely Big is still feeling icky so may not be ready for a hug; but you can still offer physical connection as a form of compassion. Your body can express, hey, I've been there too.

3. Give the Situation Time to Breathe

It's SO hard to not demand an immediate apology! It can help to consider what an apology is:

An apology demonstrates understanding of someone else's feelings, awareness of your role in causing them, and often an acknowledgement of doing things differently next time.

That's really complicated! How likely is it that our kids (or anyone) will experience all aspects of an apology in the heat of the moment? Well, zero likelihood. Zilch. Forcing an immediate apology isn't effective. 

After some time to calm down (hugs from mom, breathing, time to emote completely), you can begin to test out Big's readiness for apology. Ask a question from a place of curiosity and non-judgment: What happened earlier, honey? If there's any defensiveness or blaming, not ready. But if you test the waters and find a calm, quieter kid, you can begin to unpack the situation together. What were you feeling right then? What happened to cause you to feel that? What do you think Little felt after the push? What are some things you might do differently next time? What do you think will help Little feel better about what happened?

Let Big come up with ideas. Reinforce the brainstorming session by truly being open to whatever Big is saying. And, finally...drum roll please...you can find a opening to suggest an apology as one way to repair the relationship. Keep in mind that isn't ultimately about the two words, I'm sorry, but instead the embedded skills of an apology: empathy, compassion, self-awareness, change of future behavior, relationship repair. If those skills are being developed and you believe that the injured party has moved on, you can sometimes let go of the I'm sorry.

4. Practice, Playfully!

At Improv Parenting we see play as a powerful tool for practicing skills and navigating the complexity of life with joy. Play is a language of connection.

Apologies can be really fun - and funny - to play around with. Here are two games to try:

  • Apology Charades

Two players silently act out a scenario where someone is wronged (e.g. grabbing a toy without asking first, slamming a door in face). The guessers get a point for guessing the correct problem, and a point for adding an apology as if they are speaking for the wrong-doer (eye contact and sincerity). Silly is good, empathy is great. If there's some judging (well, that shouldn't bother someone!), see it as an opportunity to talk about perspectives and recognizing when you've hurt someone, even if you didn't mean it or don't 'agree' with their hurt. The idea originated from this article in Parents Magazine.  

  • Teacher-Student Puppets

Puppets can be anything - a stuffed animal, socks, rocks, your hand. It's often helpful to have one puppet know the 'rules' or valued social skills, while the other one doesn't and needs some non-judgmental support.

In this case one of the puppets is unaware of what an apology is and why one might do it. The teacher puppet teaches the naive puppet, and this can be explored very playfully and goofily. The naive puppet may do all sorts of things that cause harm to someone or something, and the teacher puppet can explain, patiently, why an apology might be warranted and how to do it: Acknowledge offense (even when harm is accidental), express remorse, make amends (change behavior next time, help clean up mess, help fix broken item, etc.). 

Even if the play gets super silly and unrealistic, or really aggressive and makes you wonder if your child is getting it, trust that this is offering your child an important space to practice, explore and connect. He/she may not get it right away, but if you create these characters and play around with their feelings and interactions, you will find small, shining glimmers of growth and understanding.

Remember, it's a long, patient road of practice.

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota