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How to Help a Child – or an Adult – Make a GREAT Apology

Having to apologize for something is hard.  It’s not always the “I’m sorry” that hurts…it’s the taking responsibility for the action and then not doing it again.  Saying “sorry” is easy…however,  ownership of the wrong behavior is tough to swallow.  

When we are little – we often get away with “I’m sorry” – and that’s that.  But, 99% of the time, children don’t even know what they are apologizing for, let alone mean what they say.  It’s a half-hearted, often sarcastic response to get out of trouble. I’m going to say that part again….people often apologize to get out of trouble. 


Those of you older than 48 might remember The Fonz…you know, the really cool guy from Happy Days?  He could not apologize.  It was physically impossible for him to get the words out. Why?  No one likes to be wrong.  But here’s the deal:  we should really only be apologizing for things we did that we didn’t mean to…things we didn’t really KNOW were wrong.

ways to say you are sorry

There is always a way to say you are sorry

So, if we didn’t mean to do something wrong, if we didn’t mean to hurt someone…it should be easy to offer a sincere apology.  What I find is that many people have a difficult time apologizing because they did the hurting a little bit  on purpose.  Like, they knew it was wrong and did it anyway. Biting, dogs off leash, cheating, lying, being mean…those are the things we have the most trouble apologizing for – we are more upset that we got caught or called out, and that makes it a challenge. 

Things we know are wrong, we should not do, right?  So – if we can easily say “sorry” for things we did wrong that we know are wrong, yet did anyway, then what is the consequence?  Can we just keep doing the same wrong thing over and over again…and keep giving the same, lame “sorry” every time – and just get away with it? We have to stop this habit early.

Why do we let children get away with this?  I don’t really know.  Maybe because, as adults, we know that owning up to our mistakes is HARD.  And, it should be hard.  If it’s not a challenge, it’s not really an opportunity for growth.  

What NOT to do

We have a hard time saying sincere apologies for lots of reasons. 

  • we have no plans to change the behavior
  • if something bad happened because of a situation that is out of our control
  • we feel that apologizing won’t change anything
  • we don’t feel like it’s that big of a deal
  • we don’t care about the person we’re being asked to apologize to 
  • we feel that apologizing will change the way others see us 
  • we feel like it is an admission of failure 
  • we feel like it is a sign of weakness
  • we feel like the other person is also at fault
  • we did it on purpose and don’t care about the hurt

However, true apologizing is a sign of confidence, strength, and courage.  It’s maturity.  It’s a sign of a growth mindset.  But…. it’s hard. 

We don’t need to be so stubborn.  And, we need to make sure that we don’t say that we are sorry for someone else’s feelings or deflect responsibility. Please don’t say these little gems:

Sorry wrote with colorful toy letters

  • “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
  • “I’m sorry that you took it that way.”
  • sooorrrrryyyyy
  • “I didn’t mean to make you wait, but traffic was awful.”
  • “I am sorry for not doing that work, but you forgot to remind me.”
  • “I didn’t mean to bite you, but you made me so angry by knocking over my blocks.”
  • “Oopsy.” 
  • “I wish you would have understood what I meant.”

Before we get into how to apologize….if you are an OVER APOLOGIZER…You most likely need to practice not taking responsibility for every little thing.  We can talk more about that another time, but my suggestion?  Try saying “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”…for example:

  • Thank you for waiting vs. sorry i’m late
  • Thank you for helping when I needed it vs. I’m sorry for bothering you
  • Thank you for understanding vs. I’m sorry (for everything)

So… how do we apologize?  

Here’s a funny story:  My child was a biter.  He would bite other kids every once in a while (starting at about 18 months old).  He was super coordinated and an early talker, so we (his teachers and I) would have these lengthy conversations with him about biting his friends.  He would agree and go on about his day.  It started to get worse with the biting…and sometimes shoving.  We would lay out consequences and have conversations and even get a little yelly at him: “Don’t bite your friends.”  Then, I think it was when he was like four, he kept biting this one kid.  The dad was mad, we were mad; it was frustrating.  I was an educator and couldn’t get my own child to stop biting.  I pulled him aside, exasperated, and squatted down to his level.  I looked him straight in the eyes, put on my sternist face, and said: STOP. BITING. YOUR. FRIENDS.  And, a light went off – his face lit up.  He had a eureka.  A wave of understanding washed over his aura.  “Oh! I see the problem. I don’t bite my friends.  I hate that kid.  He’s a jerk.  He’s not my friend.  I would never bite a friend.” So – all the telling him to not bite friends, he was thinking “duh”.  The apologizing wasn’t even close to being sincere, because he was being made to apologize for something he “didn’t” do (bite a friend) and something that he didn’t intend on changing because he didn’t think it was wrong.  

As mentioned before…people tend to offer an explanation instead of an apology.  Let’s practice what it feels like to say sorry in a meaningful way. Quick preview of what it looks like before we break down the steps.

“I am sorry for biting you.  I know that biting is wrong, and I should not have done that.  I won’t do it again. Next time I get angry, I will use my words instead of biting.  I’m sorry for hurting you – will you forgive me? Can I get you an ice pack to make it feel better?”

Here are the steps to make that apology, make those amends, and repair that relationship.

  1. Say, “I am sorry…”
  2. Name the behavior…

“I am sorry for my rude behavior yesterday.” 

“I am sorry I called you a poopy face.”

“I am sorry that I cheated on the test.”

“I am sorry that I lied.”

“I am sorry that I bit you.”

“I am sorry that I said those things about you.”

“I am sorry that I made you late.”

“I am sorry that I scribbled on your paper.”

“I am sorry that I didn’t restrain my dog and he pooped in your yard.”

“I am sorry. I made a mistake, or I misunderstood what you said or wanted…and I was wrong.  I completely misinterpreted your actions.”

  1. Admit that it was wrong…

This part is short and sweet.  You simply say, “I was wrong to do that.” 

  1. Make amends and make it right

After you say that you are sorry, and name the behavior, and then accept fault…you fix it as best as you can.  You definitely want to say…

“I won’t do that again.”

But, it doesn’t hurt to ask what you can do to make things right or what you could do differently next time.

  • Next time, if I come in in a bad mood, I’ll let you know instead of just being rude to you.
  • Next test, I’ll be sure to study harder.
  • Should I tell the person the truth about what happened?
  • If I’m late again, what would you like me to do? 
  • Next time, I’ll be sure to be ready earlier so I don’t make you late.
  • I will color on my own pages. Can I get you a new piece of paper?
  • I’ll keep my dog on a leash and make sure he doesn’t poop in your yard.  Let me go ahead and pick up this mess right now.
  • In the future, if I think you are upset with me, I will double check with you first.  
  1. Don’t do it again…

We have a “rule” at our house.  It’s not really a rule-rule, but an understanding of sorts.  If you lie about something, you knew it was wrong.  And, you should only have to apologize for something once.  And by that, I mean – if I do something wrong (and it will happen) I for sure need to apologize.  But that means that it shouldn’t happen again.  Little children and even big children are different.  They are still learning.  They need lots of practice making mistakes, apologizing, and learning.  That’s how we grow.  But, ultimately, when children are held accountable for their actions, they will learn as adults that apologizing is more than just saying “sorry.”  It’s about taking responsibility, making amends, and then fixing it so that it doesn’t happen again.   

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