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.

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
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.

Reply
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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