The ability to accept responsibility for unacceptable behavior by apologizing is a major emotional fitness skill. Proper apologies heal rifts that otherwise can end relationships. As with most emotional fitness skills, this one needs to be taught.
My mother could explode in anger. She never got physical with her anger, but her emotional tirades had the force of a small atomic bomb. Tied to her body’s hormonal swings, the angry bombs were often dropped illogically. Something ignored the previous day detonated emotional blasts that terrified, confused, and hurt me. I would end up crying in my room. In time my father would collect me and take me down to rejoin the family and the incident would be over until the next time. The family rule was to pretend nothing had happened. My mother would not apologize; my father would not explain. Not good.
It was when my father was dealing with the cancer that killed him that he said “I’m sorry.” He was sorry he hadn’t spent more time with us. For me, then a grown up, it was an apology for all his flaws and particularly for not protecting me from my mother’s tirades. It was a healing moment for both of us. Then when my mother died, I had a sense her spirit hovered around me like a warm blanket asking me to forgive her. A major healing moment.
Don’t make your children wait so long to hear “I’m sorry.”
PARENTING ADVICE FOR TEACHING children to apologize
Tip one: You teach this as you teach so many things. How? By example. If you are comfortable with saying you are sorry, your children will be too. So examing your comfort level with admitting wrong and apologizing. Easy? Good for you. Not so easy? Make it easier. Work on it. Set a goal of apologizing at least three times to someone every day. One of those times can be by letter or email.
I am sorry if asking you to do that burdened you. I hope doing so benefits you and your child and that will help you will forgive me.
Tip two: Remember age and stage. With those just learning to talk who have hurt another put the words for a simple apology in their mouths: “Tell your sister, ‘Sorry I hurt you’.”
Once the child has the hang of an apology, you can coach more simply with raised eyebrows and the word “Sorry” asked as a question or in some situations given as a command.
Don’t go for a perfect apology, say a “Thank you” for any attempted effort that approaches an apology.
Three and four year olds can be taught the art of making amends.
By the time a child can read, make the art of apologizing the subject of a family meeting. Don’t hold family meetings? Shame on you. Oops, sorry for using those three words.
It might help you to know one of the things I didn’t do as a good enough parent was hold family meetings. Shame on me. The idea never occurred to me until I was directing a mental health service and started training for what were called Family Network Meetings. Once I was taught how, I taught others. In time, I decided the best way to train parents was to teach them to hold successful family meetings; I used a business meeting model and in time wrote a book about how to hold a successful family meeting. Yes, that is a plug.
Back to the business of age and stage. Preteens and teens can be helped to write letters of apology.
Tip Three: Let go of perfectionism. One of the things that hinders the ability to apologize is expecting perfection from yourself. Not good.
Even though my mother was emotionally abusive, my father not protective enough, and neither good at apologizing, they were good enough parents. They off set their flaws with love, modelling many of the skills that became Emotional Fitness Training, Inc. and acts of kindness. If you are reading this that is a sign you are a good enough parent.
Remember what matters; teach your children good manners; apologizing is one and manners matter; so do hugs, practicing kindness, laughing, and playing together.
As always for all your sharing and caring, I thank you.
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