Learning to say “sorry”
Teaching children empathy and the fine art of apology

©2013 Ellen Notbohm. Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including re-posting on the Internet.

It seems it should be such a simple thing, teaching your child or student to say “I’m sorry” when an apology is warranted. But beyond repeating a conditioned response, understanding the nature of an apology and being able to deliver one sincerely requires a level of social competence that many adults find difficult. Parents are puzzled and frustrated when their child fails to offer apologies when appropriate, either benignly or seemingly willfully. Breaking that “simple” apology down to understandable increments goes a long way in helping our children understand and apply this critical interpersonal skill.

To issue a sincere apology, a child must first understand why the apology is necessary. Learning to recite the words “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. It doesn’t help the child understand what he did and the consequences it had on another person. All children have elements of selfishness, defensiveness and impulsivity to their personalities. In children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these elements may be magnified. Empathy is learned thinking and learned behavior; consistent teaching of the words and actions of empathy and apology will help them take root. It will come in increments over a long period of time. Sara, mother of  a five-year-old with autism, urges patience combined with setting the good example. “Gentle repetition, each time. I tell him, ‘You hurt her; look, she is sad (or crying). Say you are sorry,’ is a necessary first step. Modeling appropriate behavior is just as important. ‘Oh, sorry! Did I step on your toe? Ouch, are you ok?’”

The need for an apology may come when emotions are running high. At such times, an apology need not come immediately to be effective. There is huge gap between merely reciting words of apology and feeling true remorse. “As a parent, your own guilt feelings are horrible when your child doesn’t understand how he hurts others,” says Sara. But in the heat of anger, the child may need a cooling off period before he can recognize real feelings of regret and apologize sincerely. (This happens to you too, doesn’t it?) This requires striking a balance; you want the incident handled in a timely way, but an insincere apology is not an adequate apology. The cooling-off period will vary from child to child and from incident to incident. It may be two minutes this time, twenty minutes next time. But attempting to teach anything when the child is still emotionally overwrought is wasted effort.

Explaining to your child what he did that requires an apology is more likely to be effective when conveyed in an informative, not punitive, tone of voice. Taking a problem-solving rather than castigating approach preserves your child’s fragile dignity and makes it more likely that he will learn.

An apology should be very specific: “I’m sorry I broke your crayon/called you a jerk/ruined your computer game/ate your brownie.” The apology can come in many ways. The child might choose spoken words, either face to face, Skyped, or over the phone. If he’s more comfortable writing a note of apology, it can be handwritten, typed or emailed. For the younger child, consider a pre-printed note with increasing complexity as he gets older. At first, he may just fill in the name of the person to whom he is apologizing and then sign his name. Later, he can fill in “I’m sorry for ___________.” Eventually he works up to a fully original note. Drawings can also be an acceptable form of apology.

Making restitution where possible and reasonable is an important part of the process. “You can have my green crayon” or “I’ll get you a Band-aid.” The concept of cause-and-effect is not inherent in the thinking architecture of autism. Stella, mom of  a nine-year-old boy with autism, describes it this way: “I use this model: if you do something wrong you have to say you’re sorry, make a plan not to do that thing, action, words again, and then put some good back in the world. My son once made a violent gesture with his fist at a teacher. He had to apologize, work with us to find a way to use his words when he was angry to explain to the teacher how he was feeling, and he had to do something positive for the teacher. He helped the janitor after school for a few days.” Stella noted in a case like this, where the action was purposeful, “with all that was expected of him in the aftermath, he got the message that it’s not worth all the trouble to fix it, and more worthwhile to work on understanding the impact of his actions on others, and to develop self-control.”

After the apology and the restitution, it helps if the wronged party can provide closure by saying “That’s OK,” or “Thank you for apologizing” or “I forgive you.” It seems like a small thing, but the effects of providing this closure can be profound. This came home to me in an incident wherein my own son had been verbally harrassed on the school bus. The principal insisted that the perpetrators apologize. One student wrote us a very sincere note. I decided to thank him for his show of character, and wrote back to him: “It takes great courage to admit that we have made a mistake. But it is important to know that even when the mistake looks huge, there are still things we can do to put matters right again. Every day is a new chance to start over. It’s clear to me that you are well on your way to being a fine young man. Bryce appreciates and accepts your apology and would be happy to be your friend.”

The teacher later told me that my note had meant the world to this boy, and that he had slept with it next to his bed for weeks. What had started as an ugly incident of childhood cruelty ended in valuable lessons for everyone involved. A nine-year-old learned something about actions resulting in consequences, as well as something about the nature of forgiveness. I learned that a few moments spent extending a hand in kindness rather than merely reprimand can become a life-changing event for a young person. I like to think he felt the ripple effect of our exchange long after punitive response would have faded from memory.

Once children begin to understand that, even if inadvertent, negative actions and words have consequences, fear of those consequences may impede the apology process. Some children with autism think in very black-and-white terms. One mistake can seem like a reason to end a friendship or avoid the wronged party. In any interaction, all children benefit when they come to understand that everyone makes mistakes; a sincere apology and restitution puts an end to the incident and we move on. “Mistake” can be just another word for “practice.”

In teaching children with autism any sort of nuanced behavior, it’s important to take a close look at our own and be sure we are walking our talk. This includes not giving your child reason to learn to lie about his behavior in order to avoid uncomfortable consequences, such as having to admit wrongdoing and therefore apologize. For many children with autism, telling a lie is, like empathy, a learned behavior. White lies notwithstanding, our children’s innate truthfulness is something we want to celebrate and encourage, not squash. Concrete-thinking children will call a situation exactly as they see it, unless over time, we give them, through our own behavior, examples of how to use dishonesty to avoid consequences and/or consequences that are emotionally unbearable (humiliation, feelings of chronic failure, physical punishment).

We help our children learn to own their behavior by modeling honesty about our own. Become aware of how often we make our children complicit in small dishonesties. “Don’t tell Dad I bought another pair of shoes,” or “Tell (the unwanted caller) I’m not home.” Better to say: “I’ll skip lattes and lunches out this week so I can buy the shoes” or “Tell (the unwanted caller) that I cannot come to phone right now.”

I always told my children that lie they tell is worse than whatever the behavior about which they are lying. This does not mean that there were no consequences for behavior. First, I would tell them that I was proud of them for telling the truth, and if it was a first offense, I might ameliorate the consequences, or perhaps give a free pass (amnesty) with the understanding that it doesn’t happen again.

Teaching the nuanced landscape of so-called white lies is trickier business. But it’s still all part of the empathy package. In his relationships with others, lies can be acceptable when sparing someone’s feelings. “This dinner tastes just awful” may be truthful in his eyes, but it will surely hurt his host’s feelings – thereby requiring an apology. There can be truth in silence. Thumper’s mother (in the 1942 Disney movie Bambi) is right: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

©2013 Ellen Notbohm. Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including re-posting on the Internet.

Award-winning author and mother of sons with ADHD and autism, Ellen Notbohm’s books, articles and conference appearances have informed and delighted millions in more than twenty languages. Her work has won a Silver Medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards, a ForeWord Book of Year Bronze medal, Honorable Mention and two finalist designations, two Mom’s Choice Gold Awards, Learning magazine’s Teacher’s Choice Award, and an Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist designation. She contributes to numerous publications, conferences, classrooms and websites worldwide. www.ellennotbohm     Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn: EllenNotbohm