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

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. 

[irp posts=”1247″ name=”Kind Kids are Cool Kids. Making sure your child isn’t the bully.”]

15 Comments

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.

Reply
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
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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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
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.

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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’.

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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.

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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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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

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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