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A+SEL, C.A.R.E.S.

Making an Apology

04/23/2021
Making an Apology

When you were little, did anyone ever tell you to “say you’re sorry,” but you didn’t feel genuinely sorry? Maybe you were still upset at a sibling or friend who hurt your feelings, which caused you to act out, and you weren’t ready to say sorry yet. Still, you likely complied, said sorry, and moved on. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of an apology like that. The other person didn’t seem very apologetic, but because they said sorry you felt obligated to say, “That’s okay.” How does it feel to receive a perfunctory apology? In these instances, saying sorry is more of a formality where the words lack meaning. If children are taught only to say “I’m sorry” and “that’s okay” without any real sentiment attached, apologies may begin to lose their meaning. It’s important to teach children what an apology is and how to offer one correctly so that the apology works to resolve conflicts and maintain relationships.

High-quality, comprehensive apologies are effective for reconciliation and can help to validate a victim’s feelings while increasing the likelihood of forgiveness (Shumann, 2018). They also can help the person who made the transgression relieve guilt or shame (Drell & Jaswal, 2016) and build up their capacity for personal accountability, even when it’s difficult. But what, exactly, makes an apology high-quality? High-quality apologies go beyond just saying the words “I’m sorry” and explaining the transgression—they also indicate that one values a relationship, has learned a lesson, and will do their best not to repeat the wrongful action (Cohen, 2020). To demonstrate these qualities, an apology must include an acknowledgment of responsibility and reflection of remorse (Roberts, 2007).

Explaining apologies should be developmentally appropriate. K–2 students aren’t typically able to take the perspective of others (Fricke et al., 2014), so their apologies can be simpler: telling someone that they know their actions affected them and saying I’m sorry. Children who are eight years old and up are better able to take another’s perspective and begin figuring subjective factors into their understanding of their mistake. Their apologies can go a step further: showing someone that they know their actions hurt that person, along with explicitly taking responsibility and showing remorse for the harm done.

Apologies must also account for cultural considerations, as the function of apologizing can differ in different cultures. For example, in an individual-focused society, like the United States, apologies are generally understood to assign blame. In collective-focused societies, like Japan, apologies do not typically denote blame but rather express remorse (Maddux et al., 2011). What’s more, what may be an offense requiring an apology in one culture may not be in another. It’s necessary to have an understanding of the cultural differences between parties so that an apology works to adequately resolve a dispute and repair trust (Maddux et al., 2011).

Making an Apology

Once a child understands exactly what it means to apologize, the apology can be broken down into three steps for making amends (Carter, 2015):

  1. Tell the other person that you’re feeling remorse:

    Apologies are more effective when we elaborate on the regret or remorse we are feeling. Students can be guided to use “I” statements that express this regret. For example, if a child hurt someone's feelings because of a careless joke, they could be guided to say:

    • “I am feeling bad that my comment bothered you.”
    • “I feel sad that my words hurt your feelings.”
  2. Admit responsibility and show understanding for how you affected the other person:

    Even if our intentions were good or we don’t think we did anything really wrong, it is important to take responsibility for hurting someone else. Impact matters more than intention. Explaining or rationalizing why the mistake or transgression occurred actually tends to weaken an apology, rather than strengthen it (Cohen, 2020), so be sure that students focus on accountability rather than excuses. Guide students to use appropriate language, such as the following sentence stems:

    • “I know I did ___ and that hurt your feelings. I’m sorry for that.”
    • “I see that when I did ___ I upset you, and I’m sorry.”

    Depending upon the nature of the conflict and the personality of the students involved, allow them time to cool off. Offer mediation when necessary, as students may need an outside perspective to help them understand why an apology is necessary. And most importantly, don’t force it. If a student is reluctant to take responsibility and apologize, listen to their point of view. Prompt their thinking with questions like, “How would you feel in that situation?” or “What do you think is the best way to resolve this?” Give them space to talk through it and let them arrive at the decision to apologize on their own.

  3. Offer reparations:

    Making it right is an important part of an apology. This can be as simple as promising not to repeat the behavior again. For students to practice offering reparations, try the examples below:

    Guide students to add their reparations onto their apology sentence stems. “I know I did ___ and that hurt your feelings. I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again.”
    Acknowledge that sometimes, for students and adults, you may not know what to offer to make it up to someone. Tell students that in those situations, they can leave it open-ended: “I see that when I did ___ I upset you, and I’m sorry. What can I do to make it up to you?”

Making an Apology

In addition to teaching students how to apologize properly and ensuring that they have opportunities to practice this skill, we must also acknowledge that apologizing is difficult. It involves a risk of rejection and requires the vulnerability to admit fault. Apologizing requires an awareness of someone else’s needs and the ability to value them. Showing remorse for one’s transgression can come at a cost to their self-image, and all of these factors are barriers to offering proper apologies (Shumann, 2018). Understanding these barriers is necessary to help students (and ourselves) work through them. When the time comes to make an apology, have students notice their thoughts. If they are feeling resistant to apologizing, ask them why. Have them consider: what is the worst-case scenario if they apologize? What is the best? Remind students that admitting a mistake does not alter who they are, and in fact can mitigate the shame and guilt that may be driving their feelings of aversion (Shumann, 2018). Create a safe space for apologies to occur, and be sure to highlight the positive impact an apology can have on both the victim and the transgressor.

When students learn actionable steps to give apologies with sincerity, they can build stronger and longer-lasting relationships. And as students internalize the importance of apologizing, they will be more apt to do it spontaneously, which tends to be seen as more genuine in the eyes of victims and thus more effective (Drell & Jaswal, 2016). Apologizing is a crucial skill for social and emotional growth, as it builds empathy and accountability and gives students the tools to maintain meaningful, compassionate relationships throughout their lives.

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