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"SAY YOU'RE SORRY" -- When a young adolesent won't apologize

The importance of apology in family relationships.

For many young people, the insecurity and vulnerability of early adolescence (around ages 9 - 13) can make it hard to say, "I'm sorry" for a wrong that has been done.

At this transitional age, when the separation from childhood into adolescence has just begun, remorse can be in short supply because apologizing can injure fragile self-esteem. No longer content to be defined and be treated as a child, but unsure and lacking confidence in how to act more grown up, a young person's sense of inadequacy rules. Now, the lower the self-esteem, the less responsibility for wrong doing the young person can afford to take. To accept blame is often too painfully honest to do.

So your 11-year-old son grabbed the remote control from his 6-year-old sister who is crying because the older child switched her favorite TV show to something he wanted to watch instead. And when you demanded the program be switched back and the remote returned to its temporary owner, he threw it down and stormed out of the room, but not before adding insult to injury: "Oh, let the baby have her bottle!"

Now he is angry and so are you. You want him to repair the relationship with his younger sister for his grabbing the remote, for the channel switching, and for the name-calling. You want him to apologize and so you call after him: "And don't you come out of your room until you're ready to say you're sorry to your sister!"

You expect an expression of remorse for what he did, although you know a forced apology is not the way to get it since true feelings of sorrow will not likely back it up. Oh, he's sorry all right, but not for what you want.
He's sorry he didn't get what he was after.
He's sorry to be reprimanded and be in trouble with you.
He's sorry to be on the losing end of this conflict with his sister.

So how are you going to get the matter mended if whatever apology he makes will not be honestly felt? The answer is, don't go for an apology. Go for him making amends. Do so by insisting on the three steps in this process -- sensitization, evaluation, and reparation. Before he gets to do anything else he wants that requires your providing or permission, the mending must take place as follows, and it must take place with you.

Step one is sensitization. You want him to get an emotional sense of how his actions may have hurt his younger sister, so you pose a role reversal question. "Just suppose you were six and an older brother took what was temporarily yours, stopped what you really wanted to watch on television, and then called you a hurtful name for acting upset. I want you to tell me how you might be feeling in that situation." The goal of sensitization is to create a sense of empathy.

Step two is evaluation. You want him to place his behavior in an ethical context, so you pose an examination question. "In your judgment, setting your anger aside, do you believe how you acted with your sister is an okay way to treat people and to be treated by others? If you think it was right, tell me how that is so. If you think it was wrong, tell me how that is so. Then I want to discuss with you what you believe." The goal of evaluation is to create a moral context for one's actions.

Step three is reparation. You want to place his behavior in the context of injury given, so you pose a recovery question. "What special act of amends to your sister could you make for hurt you have done?" The goal of reparation is atonement. (If as part of amends, he wants to apologize, that is up to him. But it must be in addition to whatever act of atonement he makes.)

The reason why parents prefer a forced apology to making amends is because the mending process takes parental attention and effort that a token apology does not. But making amends is worth the time it takes because it can teach a valuable lesson about how people can recover normal caring after some hurt is either given or received, as inevitably happens in all significant relationships.

Remember that an adolescent is just an adult in training, and parents are preparing that young person to manage later relationships. Do you want to send a young person out into the world without preparation for managing the normal errors of his ways in significant attachments?

Some parents seem to, the ones who expect mending when hurt, but are constitutionally incapable of mending injuries they give to others. These are parents who can't admit to wronging others or to make up for doing wrong because they can't bear being in the wrong. Teenagers are quick to identify these parents. "Whatever my Dad does he swears is right." "My Mom will never say she's sorry."

When it comes to showing children how to mend relationships, the best teachers are those parents who admit when they have hurt their child, who accept honest and heart=felt responsibility for how they've acted, and then tried to repair whatever damage has been done. These are the same parents who can usually give a meaningful apology. That is, not only do they express authentic sorrow for what they did and offer to make up for it, but more important, they also commit never to act that way again and they keep that resolution. (Beware people for whom apologizing and being given forgiveness ends up being used as permission to repeat the same offense or injury. "I'm sorry," says the offender. "That's okay," says the offended. Now thinks the offender, "If that's okay then I can do it again.")

But, back to the example, what about the younger sister? What role in mend making does she have to learn to play? A very important one, it's called forgiveness.

Suppose the angry and hurt little girl says to her mother: "I don't care what he's done to make it up to me, I won't forgive him, ever!" Now the mom has some more work to do. She has to explain whom forgiveness is primarily for. So she says something like this.

"It's not just for your brother, although it's partly to let him know that you are okay with him again. It is mostly for you so you can let go your feelings of hurt and anger. People who can't forgive carry a big well of unhappiness around inside of them. Forgiveness lets you let hard feelings go. Of course, you may still remember what happened, but you will have stopped attaching pain to the memory.

"Life is filled with hurts, particularly from those we love because they are the people who can hurt us the most. When they have made an honest effort to right the relationship (vowing not to repeat giving that injury again, and having made ammends), and we have had opportunity to express our hurt, our job is to forgive them so we can release our self from anger and get back to enjoying their company again."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: 8 Ways to Anchor Adolescent Growth.