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.

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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.

Reply
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
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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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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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