Children who have shown some difficult and unpleasant behaviour will often dig their heels in and refuse to apologise or they may say sorry in a perfunctory way just to get on with their day and get the adult ‘off their back’. Needless to say, this is usually because they aren’t sorry at all. They are still emotional and unrepentant.
A proper, sincere ‘sorry’ signals a reflection about our actions and their impact on others; an understanding we could and should have behaved differently and a message to those wronged in the situation that we will try to do better in the future.
Many children can’t do this without help; many adults struggle to do this!
A 5 step process to get some progress with this issue:
- Immediately remove the child a little way from the difficult situation (in which they have done something to warrant an apology). Stay calm yourself – an emotional response from the adult risks triggering further agitation which means a genuine sorry will be harder to come by. Make sure any person who has been affected is ok – pay attention to that person whilst gently but firmly keeping the perpetrator in control
- Move further to a private space away from the action and remain with the child. Stay calm and collected. Soothe them if there is anger, upset, or any strong negative emotion. Here we need to get the balance between not paying loads of attention to bad behaviour but meeting the child’s needs to be soothed and understood. So calm, gentle but quiet and low key does it. This is a challenge for us if we are cross but will ultimately pay dividends in supporting the child to understand their emotions and the impact of their behaviour.
- As soon as you can, aim to move them back to the situation, telling them clearly before you leave this ‘calm down time’ what you expect to see in terms of their behaviour and interaction. If there is genuine calm at this point you can prompt an apology by saying something like: ‘I know you found it hard back then because…….. What you did made…… upset. I can see you didn’t mean that to happen. What shall we do to make it better?’
- Coach and praise back in ‘the thick of things’; gently prompt the apology/making amends if one has been agreed and the child is still calm. Notice and comment on appropriate behaviour. Remain with the child and give lots of upbeat positive attention whilst there are signs of things getting back on track (so the child gets more attention for doing the right thing than for the previous unwanted behaviour)
- If an apology was not forthcoming or you feel there is some learning to be done because similar unwanted behaviour could be repeated, address the issues later the same day or early the next, whilst the memory is still fresh. Find a time when there is peace and quiet and a responsive child. Allow them to either express what went wrong or use words for them (tentatively suggest what you think was the cause of the difficult behaviour). Use the ‘What happened?’ question to explore the incident, not ‘Why did you do that? ‘Why’ questions are hard for youngsters at the best of times. Really listen to anything they say as a response even if you are finding their explanation hard to take, and let them know you have heard. This is not about condoning the behaviour it’s about calming the child enough for them to feel understood so they can, in turn, understand the impact of their actions. You may not need to point out how ‘the victim’ is feeling as a calm child who has been listened to will often have a ‘lightbulb moment’.
Find a solution together for next time the situation may arise. Allow your child to come up with things that would help and offer your support. Make a mental note to remind them of these strategies prior to a similar situation, where possible. Support the child to make amends as soon as is practicable. Young children often like to draw a picture for the person who was upset. Ensure the amends process is concluded, any action taken is received by the recipient and, where possible, the apology is acknowledged,
Through challenging times it can be useful to keep in mind that an apology is a part of learning empathic skills and the consequences of our behaviour. These skills can be taught using the strategies above. An apology gained at the right time can be really powerful and can signal a breakthrough in improving behaviour.