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Why ‘Sorry’ Matters: How to Encourage Empathy and a Heartfelt Apology

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Why 'Sorry' Matters: How to Encourage Empathy and a Heartfelt Apology

‘Sorry’ is one of the earliest words we teach our kids but for a while, it can be a woolly concept to understand. Even as adults the meaning can sometimes be lost. Saying sorry doesn’t change whatever has happened and it doesn’t necessarily ease the pain. So what does it do, and how do we encourage a heartfelt one driven by empathy? 

A study from the University of Virginia has explored the importance and meaning of apologies for 6 or 7 year olds. At this age, they are learning and developing at spectacular rates and one of their important jobs is to build the social skills that will help them thrive.

The researchers asked a group of children and an adult research assistant to build towers out of plastic cups. Just before a child was about to finish his or her building, the adult ‘accidentally’ toppled the child’s tower. The adult either apologised or said nothing, and then left the room.

The apology was important and it did make a difference, but not immediately. Initially, the children who received an apology reported feeling just as bad as those who went without.

Later on though, the power of the apology started to emerge. Though it did not heal the hurt feelings, it did have the capacity to repair the relationship. When deciding how many stickers to give the adult who had knocked down their tower, the children who heard ‘I’m sorry,’ were more generous than those who had not been given an apology.

According to Marissa Drell, the lead author of the study,

Even though an apology didn’t make children feel better, it did help to facilitate forgiveness. They seem to have recognized it as a signal that the transgressor felt bad about what she had done and may have been implicitly promising not to do it again.

Saying sorry was important for the relationship, but there was something else that strengthened the relationship even more. When the children received a hand from the adult to repair the fallen tower, they felt better at the time of the accident and were more generous later.

According to Drell, actively trying to put things right can help the victim to feel better in a couple of ways. The first is the effect of undoing some of the harm by putting things right. The second effect is by showing the victim that the person who hurt them is sincere and genuinely wants to make things better between them.

When it comes to apologies, children might know it’s the right thing to do, but they might also be completely lost about why. When they see someone hurt it can difficult to understand how a little word can strip the pain and make things right. 

Even though saying sorry might not fix the hurt or change how the person feels, it nurtures trust and connection later on. Encouraging an apology is an important way to nurture a vital quality in children – empathy. 

Encouraging empathy and a heartfelt apology.

  1. Looking through someone else’s eyes.

    Ask your little person how he or she thinks the person who has been hurt might be feeling. This will encourage them to take on another view of the situation, through eyes that are different to their own and probably, for the moment at least, a little sadder as well. Alternatively, ask how he or she might feel if the same thing happened to them. 

  2. Explain that their words are powerful.

    Let them feel the strength in being kind, empathic and emotionally responsible. Their words are powerful – they can hurt, they can help and they can heal. Explore with them how they can use their words in a powerful way that will be good for them and good for the people around them. ‘What do you think might happen if you say sorry? What do you think might happen if you don’t? Which one would you like to make happen?‘ Or, ‘What would you like to see happen now? What could you do to help that along?’

  3.  Minimise shame.

    Whatever happens, it’s important to minimise shame. In order to learn from a behaviour, children need to feel safe enough to own the behaviour. Shame gets in the way of this. Minimise shame by talking about what has happened in terms of what they have done, not who they are. Rather than, ‘You’re so naughty,’ try ‘When you jumped on her sandcastle …’

    Another way to minimise shame is to normalise their imperfections – we all have them and it’s healthy and important for them to know this and to know that they are still the loveable people they were before they did what they did. ‘I know you didn’t mean what you did – you’re a great kid – but we all do things from time to time that make other people sad. When that happens, it’s important to do what we can to help make things better. Let’s talk about how you might be able to do that.’

  4. Explain why the apology is important.

    The concept of an apology can be difficult to understand – there is nothing concrete about giving one and there is generally nothing tangible that changes when you receive one. Help them understand why it’s important. ‘Saying sorry probably won’t stop people hurting and it definitely won’t fix broken things, but that’s not what an apology is for. Saying sorry is to let the person know that you care, that you realise you made a mistake and that you will try really hard not to do it again. People don’t apologise because they’re naughty or bad, they apologise because they’re brave enough to admit when they have made a mistake and brave enough to try to make things better.’

  5. And for the tricky apologies – to the one who (they think) has it coming.

    One of the most important things for children to realise is that apologising and doing the ‘right thing’ has everything to do with who they are and nothing to do with who the other person is or what they think he or she might deserve. ‘I know she keeps telling everyone that it’s a pretend cape and that you’re not really Batman, but that doesn’t make it okay for you to tell her that she’s cat poo. What would someone kind and brave and strong do right now?

Being a kid is hard work – there’s so much do and on top of that they have to get savvy with some hazy concepts. Fortunately, childhood comes with plenty of opportunities for them to explore, experiment with, and discover the best ways for them to be. Sometimes things will barrel along beautifully, and sometimes things will end in tears and an empty space where an apology needs to go. That’s exactly how it’s meant to be – the opportunities for them to discover their own magic will be right there in the middle of both. 

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14 Comments

Eric D. Greene

Love this, particularly for me about minimizing shame. I grew up with too much shaming and never really learned the lessons, just that I was a bad person. And that’s not what I want to teach my own son. Thanks – Eric

Reply
Kristin

I read the article and like the key points I am struggling with apologies with my 5 yr old. I must mention it’s hard to feel like I read a credible article when words like minimize, realize,and apologizing were spelled with and s.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Kristin, spelling these words using ‘s’ instead of ‘z’ is the preferred way of spelling in many places outside the US. Though this is an international site, I am Australian. It’s how we spell those words here.

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Shiri

This is a very powerful message indeed and delicately worded. Thank you. The only thing I would add is the importance of us as adults modelling the behaviour too. Owning your own mistakes, being able to apologise to your child, help them fix where appropriate and/or talk about how you would try to act differently next time. parents also mess up and these are great opportunities for teaching children about humility, compassion and problem solving skills as well as model a ‘script’ for apologising beyond just saying ‘sorry’.

Reply
Jennee

To echo Shiri’s comment – I’m always cognizant of how impactful my behaviour is to my daughter. Sometimes I do well, sometimes I don’t but on the occasions where its my turn to apologize, I make sure it happens!

Really enjoyed reading this.

Reply
LAmomof2

Love the article!

It is an important message lesson for kids as well as for adults who haven’t yet mastered the concept.

Reply
Lindsay

Thank you for this article. I especially appreciate your explanation for why saying sorry is important, it is clear and concise and in language that I think will really work with my nearly 3 year old.

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Catherine

This came at a perfect time for me. Especially the reminder about not shaming. One thing I would add is that by apologising it can help towards restoring the relationship.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Sometimes it will take a few times to learn the lesson, and that’s okay. Depending on the age, it may be that the cognitive skills, empathy, or the ability to understand that not everyone feels the same and needs the same are not quite developed yet. It may also be an issue of self-control and being able to weigh up consequences. Again, it can take a while for the brain to be fully capable of this. The adult brain isn’t fully developed until age 24 – until then, it’s all about learning what works and what doesn’t.

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