Three Steps to Authentic Apologies that Change Negative Behaviour
“Say you’re sorry right this instant young lady!” Have you ever said that? Or maybe this one: “You’re not coming out of your room until you apologize to your brother.” I know I’ve definitely said the second one before! My intention was good but the lesson being taught to my children was all wrong. Think about what happens next. The child eventually comes out and apologizes to brother. The child is happy because she is no longer stuck in her room. Brother likely doesn’t feel much better because he can tell the apology was forced. But somehow I feel slightly better because my child has done the “right” thing by apologizing. What if there was a way to apologize authentically AND help change the negative behaviour all at the same time?
Welcome to the three step apology! I call it this because there are three simple sentences to remember. They are, “I am sorry for…”, “Next time I will…”, “Will you forgive me?”. I am going to break this down for you so you will know how to successfully implement the three step apology.
1. “I am sorry for…”: Most of us will quickly spit out an apology to our kids or our spouse when we know we’ve made a mistake. For me (with shame) the common one is, “I’m sorry for yelling”. Most of us stop right there. We identify what we are sorry for and we apologize for the identified negative behaviour. The injured person generally says, “It’s okay”, and life goes on. Great news! You’ve already mastered the first step of the three step apology because it is simply what you’ve already been doing. Identify what you are sorry for and say sorry for it.
2. “Next time I will…”: This is the step that is probably new for you. This step requires some serious thinking. But this is the step that if done correctly, will actually lead to a change in behaviour. Let me give you an example. We’ve just had a super fun family game night. We were supposed to stop playing at 7:45 but we went until 8:00, which is bedtime. I have just asked my son three times to put his pajamas on. I come back to his room only to find him playing on the floor and he STILL doesn’t have them on. It’s late, it’s been a long day, and my patience is GONE! So I yell. This works for getting his pajamas on, but now my little boy, who is sensitive to yelling, is crying and crawling into bed not wanting his momma to tuck him in. I now feel terrible and know I need to apologize to him. BEFORE I apologize I need to think about why I yelled, what led to me yelling, and what I can do differently next time I’m in that situation.
Why did I yell? Because I was frustrated that my son did not listen to me the first time I told him to put his pajamas on. What led to me yelling? My son’s disobedience and the fact that we were rushing to bed because we played games for to long. What can I do differently next time? I can make sure my son starts getting ready for bed with enough time so we aren’t rushed. I can have my son look at me when I ask him the first time to put his pajamas on and even repeat back my instructions to ensure he hears and understands what he is to be doing. Now I know you might be thinking, “But he disobeyed! He needs to apologize!” And I think you are correct but right now we are dealing with MY negative behaviour. We’ll get to his in a second.
3. “Will you forgive me?”: This step opens the door for reconciliation. Here you are asking the injured person to forgive you. That person has heard what you are sorry for, what you are planning to do differently next time, and can now make the choice to forgive. This is what my apology would sound like: “I’m sorry for yelling at you when you didn’t put your pajamas on right away. I was feeling rushed because it was passed your bedtime. Next time I will make sure to put away the games on time so we aren’t rushed at bedtime. I’ll also ask you to look at me when I tell you to put on your pajamas to make sure you know exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Will you forgive me?”
I have taught my children to say, “I forgive you”, instead of the usual, “It’s okay”. What happened isn’t okay. It isn’t okay that I yelled at my son. BUT he can choose to forgive me.
I want to give you a heads up! Step two can be very hard sometimes. It is easy to fall into the trap of making excuses for negative behaviour. I could easily say, “Well, if he had of obeyed than I wouldn’t have yelled.” And although that may be perfectly true, it doesn’t change the fact that I yelled. I’m not in control of my son’s actions, but I am (or at least should be!) in control of mine. Be prepared for your kids to get stuck in the trap of making excuses! Persevere though and keep redirecting the child back to his or her actions, not the actions of someone else.
Now, onto my son that disobeyed! He also needs to apologize to me for his disobedience. He is only six so he is still going to need help working through these three steps. But he should still go through each step. First, he needs to identify what he did wrong. Second, he needs to think about why he did this so he can decide what he can do differently next time. Third, he needs to ask me to forgive him.
Let’s say the problem is between your two children. Little Sally hit Johnny because Johnny wouldn’t give her the toy. Sally is now in her room so she can calm down and you can have a quiet place to talk to her. Take her through the steps.
First she needs to identify what she did wrong. Generally this is pretty easy but watch out for her trying to blame Johnny for her actions. Help her to focus only on her part in the situation.
Then, once she has identified that she shouldn’t have hit Johnny you can go onto asking her why she hit him or what led her to hitting him. This really allows your child to share his or her frustrations at this point. Now comes the hard part! Ask Sally what she can do differently next time instead of hitting her brother. Ideally she will come up with these ideas on her own but she may need some help depending on age. She may decide that next time she could wait for the toy, she could find something else to play with, or she could ask to trade toys.
The third step is asking for forgiveness. This is what Sally’s apology would sound like, “Johnny, I’m sorry for hitting you. Next time I want your toy I will wait until you are done with it. Will you forgive you?” Chances are Johnny is going to see this as an authentic apology because Sally has shown that she has taken the time to actually think about it.
When starting out with the three step apology it will likely be necessary to have your child role play the apology with you before making the apology to another person. This helps the child to be confident in what he or she is saying. It also helps take away some of the nervousness in apologizing in a new way. I found role playing to be helpful and necessary at first but eventually the children will do it all on their own. Like with anything new, it takes practice!
Sometimes a child might not be ready to apologize right away. Sometimes I’m not even ready to apologize right away! I need time to think about and process what happened. Do I do this by trapping myself in my bedroom? No! Although sometimes I might like to! Children often need time as well so it might be that they continue on with their day (not confined to their room) and the apology will come later. This might mean that the apology comes a couple of hours later or even the next day. This is okay! I would rather an authentic apology the next day, than a forced apology five minutes later. Wouldn’t you?
Each step of the three step apology is significant in its own way and no step should be skipped. The first step identifies the negative behaviour. The second step helps to prevent the negative behaviour from happening again. The third step allows for reconciliation between the two parties. Just remember, “I’m sorry for…Next time I will…Will you forgive me?” Give it a try the next time you need to apologize and I know you will see how this type of apology leads to authenticity and change in negative behaviour!