Part I of Should You Make Your Kid Apologize looks at the complexity of social interactions when we apologize as adults. You can read that HERE. This week I explore how to move kids towards making a genuine apology by first honoring where they are with their thinking/feeling.
Hollow Apologies Teach Our Children to Lie and Be Out of Touch with Their Emotions
One reason our kids’ apologies are often hollow is that they are given too soon. How can an apology be genuine if we are still feeling hurt or wronged ourselves? When we come in to sort out a conflict between two kids, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. We see that Jane has hit John but we have not heard John call Jane a poopy face (or heard Jane call John dumb or seen John take Jane’s pens without asking or…). Or maybe John was just the easy target. Maybe Jane is hitting John because Mom told Jane sharply that she is too young to use a paring knife and that felt unfair to Jane. It hurt that Mom does not have confidence in her.
To Jane, to have to apologize to John when she is still suffering from a previous hurt is just insult to injury.
Identify the Underlying Cause
When your children misbehave there is always a reason. Children do not misbehave for no reason. They want power, they want attention, they want excitement or, sometimes, they want revenge. Until you have addressed their underlying need, they are not going to be able to stand in another person’s shoes and empathize with them. So, when helping children to defuse a conflicted situation, I like to start with information gathering (after, of course, comforting the child who has been hit). I say something like, "You must have been really upset to hit your brother. Do you want to tell me about that?" This may illicit a true reason or you may just get a convoluted story. Try to summarize the gist of the emotion behind the story and acknowledge that. Keep probing: Is there anything else that happened today to upset you? Is there anything else you need me to know?
Ask the Child Acting Out What She Needs to Feel Better
Now comes the kicker for most parents because it feels counter-intuitive. Ask, “What do you need right now to feel better?” What?! Ask the child who is acting out what she needs to feel better?! Don’t I have that backwards?
No, and here’s why: Until a child has regulated her own emotions, her over-heated brain is not going to allow her to make a genuine apology. Subconsciously she is thinking that it is not fair that she is hurting and she has to make someone else feel better. If she makes the apology, it is going to be because it is expedient. Apologizing will get her parent off her back. But it will be a lie, a social nicety and nothing more.
Very often when you ask a child what she needs to feel better, she will demand an apology for herself! And when you think about it, that is fair. Just as you are looking for her to acknowledge that she has hurt her brother, she is looking for acknowledgement that she has been hurt or wronged.
At this point in the information gathering, you can say, “Okay, I hear that you would like an apology from your brother, and we will get back to that.”
Ask the Other Child for His Story
Again, you might wonder why I would ask the hitter for her story before I ask the child being hit. Here’s why: When you ask John for his story first, he will milk it for all it is worth and paint himself as the innocent victim. Now, after hearing the hitter’s story, you turn to John and say, “What do you need me to know?”, John might say something like, “I don’t like her. She’s a poopy face!” Encourage more conversation (and support John in expressing his frustrations with concrete examples rather than general putdowns) until John has gotten out all his emotions and feelings.
NOTE: At no point does the parent need to try to decide whose story is the truth. The key to all this talk is to air feelings because that is what allows children to calm down and make choices at their best.
Now is the time to ask John what he needs to feel better.
Sometimes Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Maybe John will say he would like an apology. In reality, because apologies are rather abstract and just words, what he will probably request is an action—like he want his sister to share her pens with him.
As long as Jane has felt truly heard, understood and acknowledged, she will probably be more than ready to offer amends.
At this point, Jane’s own request might become more concrete (like, “please ask before you take my pens”).
Over Time Kids Will Learn That Words Can Go Along Side Actions
As kids get older and their ability to be abstract increases, they will be able to offer an apology as a genuine reflection of their intent to be more sensitive next time. In the long run, though, if a person’s actions do not back up their words, the apology remains hollow.
Going through this process takes time. You won’t be able to sit with your children this long every time. If time is short, it might be best to remind children of the rule, “We don’t hit in this family to solve problems,” and then distract or redirect the children. If you don’t have the time to get to a genuine apology or act of contrition, it is probably better not to demand a forced, fake apology. Again, given lots of practice with you, as your kids mature, they will naturally take turns in airing their complaints or you will hear things like, “I know I owe you an apology but I am too mad right now.” Given the model of how to work through feelings but also the space to choose when and how to apologize or make amends, children will experience how good it feels to get a genuine apology—and will be more ready give one themselves.