Parent's Corner: How Children Learn to Say ‘I’m Sorry.’

Parents I know or parents I work with are always worried about whether they have done something wrong. And usually the thing that they are currently worried about isn’t a big problem or they handled it just fine, but as to the question of whether they ever got it wrong? The answer is yes. Here’s the thing: It’s not possible to get it right all the time in ANY relationship—child or adult. It’s just not. So why do we even expect it? Of course you will get it wrong. And of course you will get it right. But by worrying about what it means when we get it wrong we often miss the gift in it.

Keep in mind that what creates a secure attachment between caregiver and child isn’t getting it right all the time. It turns out that parents of all kinds seem to make the same amount of mistakes. What differentiates a parent who creates a secure attachment is the awareness that something is amiss, and the capacity and patience for repeated attempts at mending it.

When you think you have done something wrong, or when you are confronted with feedback where it felt wrong to someone else there is something you can do.  You can simply say you are sorry. Often it will not feel like enough. To you, or to the other person. When your child is disappointed and you say you are sorry, it will not fix it right away. This lack of immediate feedback may be what makes sorry so difficult to learn and believe in. Often in that exact moment nothing really happens, which can be puzzling. Something happens, someone feels bad, someone says “I’m Sorry.” And for a bit, nothing really happens. It takes a while for bad feelings to dissipate or for the situation to slow down.

Sorry is something that is learned. It takes time and practice. And it is best learned (although painfully) as a feeling and not as an idea--and we learn that feeling by feeling hurt and being apologized to. If you never say you are sorry to your children, how do you imagine they will learn to say it to you or to someone else? How will they understand the complicated give and take of what feels broken and how it gets repaired? So when you worry that you have gotten it wrong—rejoice. It’s the chance for your children to learn the necessary dance steps of relationship. If you never get it wrong, or believe that you never get it wrong, and therefore never practice repair—then your children won’t learn this important skill- one of the most important relational skills there is—the ability to stay in a difficult situation and mend it.

I worked for many years with children in the juvenile justice system and so often heard “that girl has no remorse for what she has done.” Or, “He never apologizes.” But I can tell you that these children had lived very difficult lives and I am fairly certain that no one ever apologized to them. Where on earth would they have learned this? I am not excusing the behavior for which people wished they had remorse, but I am saying that these kids wouldn’t have felt ‘sorry’ because they never learned to feel the hurt in a relationship and have it mended. Sorry is something you need to learn in relationship.

In some ways ‘sorry’ is both a feeling and a contract or an investment in the future. One way to think about it is the way we handle breaches of trust in sports. When someone does something in sport that is against the rules—they receive a penalty which requires some form of restitution. If they push someone, or hold them, or trip them their team is required to give the other team something in return that is helpful: they get a corner kick, or a shot from the foul line or they get to move half the distance to the goal line. In essence, this ‘payback’ from the other team is a version of “I’m sorry.” The corner kick doesn’t fix the transgression. It doesn’t make it better, or make it so it never happened. The corner kick is an acknowledgement that something went wrong and an offer from one side to the other to stay in the game. To keep going.

“I’m sorry” doesn’t fix the problem, but it is an invitation to the hurt party to stay in the game, to keep playing. It is a humble request to try again. Sorry doesn’t say that what was hurt is all better, sorry says that the relationship is big enough to hold the hurt.

And don’t get hung up on whether or not you or your child ‘feels’ sorry. Feelings are complicated. Sorry is the acknowledgement that something is amiss, not necessarily a complete understanding of what the situation meant for the other person. Don’t require that your child ‘feels’ sorry before he or she says it. Often they won’t feel sorry about what they did because that’s not the feeling they are having at the moment. When I was in kindergarten we had these mesh screens that we got to use to make paintings by sticking toothbrushes in paint and brushing them over the mesh to make splatter paintings. I totally got in to it and in my excitement splatter painted my classmates new dress. I didn’t feel sorry. I felt confused. I had done exactly as I was told and had no idea what the outcome could be. And I was frustrated that they made me stop painting because it was really fun. And I was sad that everyone was mad at me. But I was asked to apologize to my classmate and I think it was a good idea because that is the social interaction of “I’m sorry.”

And to help your children with “I am sorry” I think it is often helpful to help them find a way to make restitution if the transgression was big enough—help clean up the mess, re-do what was done poorly, do something kind or helpful after something unkind. Restitution isn’t punishment—it’s a chance for the both parties to experience trust in a relationship again.

I’m sorry is learned from both sides: from feeling hurt and being apologized to as well as being the one who needs to say I’m Sorry. Both sides need to be learned and practiced in order to fully learn the dance steps necessary for working through difficulty in relationships. Good news for parents and children alike: If you are wrong or have made a mistake: you are creating a chance at an even stronger relationship.

© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD