I’m sorry. These two little words are not easy to say. They feel complicated and the words don’t flow nearly as freely as they should. Some people even pride themselves on never saying it. Some think they say it but it is not quite right. “I’m sorry, but …” is one of my least favorite kinds of apologies. It doesn’t count as an “I’m sorry” if it’s followed by a “but”. Ever. Today my kid broke it down perfectly for me. I listened to an interaction between two of my teenagers. They were arguing, pushing each others buttons, driving each other and me crazy, as is typical at least twenty hours of every day! But then something happened that crossed a line. My son picked up one of the bazillion hair ties sitting around our house and loaded that sucker with the expertise of a marksman and shot the hair tie right into her face! I’d like to think he didn’t mean to shoot it, that even if he did, he didn’t mean to aim for her face, or maybe it was just a lucky shot; but that would not be honest. He meant it. He was annoyed. He is younger and outmatched on ability to hang in the annoyance battle and he seldom wins. That’s just the way it is going to be for this guy. The older sisters can out argue and out annoy and out irritate him hands down anytime. So he twisted that hair thingy around his finger and launched. But if I can brag a bit about my outstanding parenting, he did feel bad immediately. Okay, okay, maybe he felt really bad because he knew he would be in huge trouble if he actually blinded her in one eye. But hey, either way he felt really bad, and that should count for something! Anyway, as all this was happening, he said, “I’m really sorry. I regret picking up that hair tie and I take responsibility for shooting it right at your face. I meant to do it and I’m sorry. What can I do to make it up to you?” Can you imagine?? Who taught this kid how to apologize so smoothly? I was so impressed with the skills this kid has that I asked, “How did you come up with THAT apology?” He said simply, “Oh, we learned in Guidance how to do the three R’s of an apology. Express regret, take responsibility and offer a resolution.” Wow. How simple he made it seem! Thank you school guidance counselor! Nice work!
Now if we could all learn to do this so easily wouldn’t the world be a nicer place? Or at least maybe once in a while it could end a debate or finish an argument or mend some hurt feelings.
The three R’s of an apology…
Offer Resolution or make it Right
The beauty of this is its’ simplicity and clear outline. It is a cheat sheet for how to do something that seems really hard. The challenge though is to practice it. We as parents need to practice and we need to make our teenagers practice it. So why not use it on the small simple things that happen every day?
How about, “I regret being late picking you up today. I got distracted and just lost track of time. How can I make this right”? (now of course you are a busy mom and if you are a few minutes late I hope their answer is something like, don’t worry about it mom, no big deal, you do so much for me every day I totally understand).
But it is showing them how to use the formula. It owns your piece of responsibility so that they too learn how to apologize and take responsibility. If THEY are late when you are picking them up, it gives you the chance to say, you were late and are wasting my time, I’d like an apology.
Instead of “OMG, Mom, whatever, it was like 5 minutes, what’s the big deal!”, you might get, “I regret wasting your and I take responsibility for stopping to talk to my friends when I knew you were waiting, how can I make this up to you?” Wouldn’t that be fun?? Or weird. But either way it is a great way to practice apologizing.
There are a million fears in parenting a teenager, but one of my biggest is that my kids will make a mistake that cannot be taken back. A mistake that can’t be fixed with a grounding or consequence or that can not be undone and will stay with them their whole lives. Teens cause horrible traffic accidents by texting and driving, teens kill one another in stupid pranks and making poor decisions, teens accidentally say words and contribute to bullying that can ultimately lead to suicide. If teens don’t deal with their own guilt and shame they will carry those emotions like bricks into their adult life. So let’s teach these teens how to apologize for the times in their life when they will really need it. Let’s teach them how to apologize to us, to the neighbor, to teachers, to themselves, so that when they need to use an apology for something that really matters they have the skills to do it. They will need to make it right for the person they hurt but also for themselves many times in their life. Hurting people we care about is a guarantee in life. But perhaps if they learn to use the three R’s of an apology they can work through just about any apology needed in life. The “how can I make it right” part isn’t always going to be clear or easy, but at least they know it is within their power to find the way to make it right. Show them how to make it right with the little things along the way and you will be giving them a chance to carry less guilt and sadness with them their whole lives when they face the really big things.
Joy Hartman is a family therapist in Wisconsin who has worked with teenagers and their families for over twenty years. She now has the unique pleasure of raising three teenagers of her own! Joy helps teens and parents find their own unique strengths and talents to make the complicated journey to adulthood one filled with support, love and little bit of humor!
Visit her website at : joyhartman.com
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