Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Saying Sorry

The developmental importance of being allowed to make amends.

How often do we say sorry to our children? Not just for the little things like accidentally sitting on their sunglasses or forgetting to pick them up from their friend’s house (again!), but for the big things like breaking a promise or betraying a secret? How often do we say sorry for our inadequacies as parents?

It affects their development. The theory goes that children love and hate their parents, loving them for their kindness and hating them for all the ways in which they frustrate and disappoint. These children become young people and reach a stage when their capacity for hatred starts to disturb them. “Am I a bad person for feeling this way? Am I hateful for all the times when I’ve taken revenge on my parents, for all the times when I’ve wished they’d die and I’d never have to see them again? Is there something really wrong with me?”

Developmentally, this is the point at which young people look to make amends, to say sorry in order to prove to themselves (and to their parents and others) that they’re not so bad after all. Without opportunities to make amends, the danger is that they stay stuck with a sense of being bad, unkind, unloving people.

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Some young people are saved by the love of a boyfriend or girlfriend, their lives transformed because this person unwittingly gives them the opportunity to show how loving they can be. But there are other young people who continue searching, searching for someone, searching for anyone who’ll understand that they’re no so bad, that they’ve made mistakes for sure, but that they want to make amends and - despite the embarrassment and loss of face – want to say sorry.

There are young people deemed by adults to be irresponsible and unfeeling who, given an opportunity to take genuine responsibility and demonstrate their compassion for another human being, jump at the chance and perform wonderfully, amazing so many adults who didn’t think that these young people had such qualities in them.

What these young people are doing – psychologically – is saying sorry to their parents: sorry for everything, sorry for hating you, sorry for letting you down, sorry for making your life difficult, sorry for swearing at you and threatening you. Without opportunities to say sorry, some young people give up, persuaded that “This is how I am…. I’m someone who always lets people down, who can never stay in a relationship, who’s always angry and jealous and nasty to other people. If you knew me, you wouldn’t want to be with me!”

What makes saying sorry so much easier for young people is when their parents (and teachers and other professionals) are able to say sorry themselves and mean it, no longer pretending to be perfect, demonstrating to their sons and daughters that remorse isn’t shameful but is actually a sign of strength. “I’m sorry that me and your mum split up…. I’m sorry that I’m hopeless at expressing my own feelings…. I’m sorry for the times when I’ve humiliated you or let you down…. I’m really sorry.”

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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