More than “I’m Sorry”

More than "I'm Sorry" - Teaching Kids the RIGHT Way to ApologizeTeaching Kids the RIGHT Way to Apologize

An important relationship skill is the ability to resolve conflicts. And resolving conflicts often involves an apology. Most kids are bad at apologizing, and that’s because the adults in their lives are mostly bad at apologizing, too.

Apologizing well is a skill not many of us have mastered. Our natural instinct is to defend ourselves or see ourselves as wronged. “I’m right. He’s wrong,” we think (or say), keeping our conflicts black-and-white, rather than looking for where we have some culpability.

A Typical Kids’ Conflict Scenario

In many conflict situations, both parties have something to apologize for. With kids (often siblings), it can look like this:

Sally asks to join in a game.

Jane is caught up in the game and doesn’t respond, ignoring Sally’s request.

Sally gets upset and knocks the game over.

Jane pushes Sally and calls her a bad name.

Who needs to apologize, Sally or Jane?

Adults tend to simplify and blame one kid – usually the one they view as more “prone” to troublesome behaviors or the one the adult witnessed doing or saying something mean or inappropriate.

But conflicts often are not black and white, as our scenario suggests.

In this situation, Sally and Jane both have something to apologize for. But in the heat of the moment, there will only be accusations and anger:
“She pushed me.”
“She knocked over our game.”
“She called me a bad word.”

Once both kids are calm (because you can’t resolve any conflict when people are emotionally riled up), a situation like this offers an opportunity to teach kids the RIGHT way to apologize.

The Three Rs of a Good Apology

What we traditionally have asked kids to do when they do something wrong is to say, “I’m sorry.” If that’s the end of it, all we’ve asked of them is to express their regret for what they’ve done, but that doesn’t make the person they’ve wronged feel much better (especially if their tone is snarky). It’s good to remember (and teach our kids) that a good apology has “Three Rs”:

“A good apology will communicate three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy. Apologizing for a mistake might seem difficult, but it will help you repair and improve your relationships with others.”

  • Regret: Express how you feel about what you did.
  • Responsibility: Acknowledge what you did wrong.
  • Remedy: Offer a solution for how you can fix the situation.

The Six Steps to a Good Apology

Encourage each child (or only one, depending on the circumstances) to come up with a good apology. Writing it down before they say it can be a good start, and that letter can be given to the child with whom they’re in conflict. When we take the time to write something down, we give ourselves the chance to think through what we want to say. For many kids (and adults), the words won’t come out right if we ask them to just “think on their feet.” I learned the acronym “WIBYT” (Write it before you talk) from Michael Brandwein many years ago at a camp conference. We use it a lot during staff training. People who are extroverted talkers don’t need to write things down. They think while talking. But at least half of people do better when given a few minutes to think and write before having to share. With a younger child for whom writing is difficult, you can act as a scribe and take notes as they think through what they want to say. I found a great list of what makes a “good apology,” so it’s best if the child can include all of these parts:

  1. Use the words, “I’m sorry.”(watch tone of voice – a real apology doesn’t have an angry or dismissive-sounding “I’m sorry”)
  2. Acknowledge exactly how you messed up. (As in, “I used unkind words that hurt you.”)
  3. Tell how you were feeling/why you think you did the thing
  4. Tell the person how you’ll fix the situation.
  5. Promise to behave better next time.
  6. Ask for forgiveness.
    6 Steps to a Good Apology
    Jane’s & Sally’s Apologies

Here’s an idea of what Jane’s and Sally’s apologies might look/sound like (after they’ve thought about/written down each step):

I’m sorry I interrupted your game and messed it up by knocking it over. I was feeling left out and angry.

I’d like to set the game back up for you.

I promise to be more patient next time I want to play with you.

Will you forgive me for messing up your game?


I’m sorry I ignored you when you asked to play. I’m also sorry I called you a bad word and pushed you. I was feeling frustrated.

Next time you ask to play, I’ll let you know that you can play next game.

I promise to be more kind in how I respond to you when you want to play with me.

Will you forgive me for pushing you and calling you a bad word?

As you can see, it may take a little time and work with the kids to help them make good apologies, but they will learn so much more than if they’re just told to say, “I’m sorry.”

Four Apology Busters

Like I mentioned earlier, adults often aren’t very good at apologies, so it’s important that we learn about and teach our kids the kinds of things that can ruin an apology. We’ll call these “apology busters” because they negate the point of the apology.

Bad apologies tend to suffer from these four shortcomings:

Justifying words or behavior: “She’s always bugging me about playing games and I’m sick of it.”

Blaming the victim: “She pushed me first.”

Making excuses: “I’m really tired today and I just can’t deal with you.”

Minimizing the consequences: “I was just kidding when I called you that. I thought you knew it was just a joke.”

Now, to bring it back to parenting: On any given day, I usually have something I can apologize to my kids for. Whether I wasn’t paying attention when they asked me a question or I failed to do something they asked me to do, I know I can come up with something to apologize for. By expressing my regret, responsibility, and remedy, using the six steps, and avoiding apology busters, I can model for my kids an important skill that they will definitely need in life to have positive relationships.

5 Steps to Help Kids Resolve Conflicts
A Trick That Will Make Your Next Apology Better, Science of Us

I hope that something you read here resonates with you and makes you and your kids feel happier and more connected. If you’d like to get an email when I write a new post (weekly), enter your email in the “Subscribe” box in the right column. You can also follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter for links to articles, quotes, and tips that I find helpful or inspirational.  Thank you for reading and have a happy day!

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