Beyond Saying Sorry: A More Meaningful Path to Conflict Resolution

By Daniella Guzman

saying sorry“Say ‘I’m sorry’ and mean it!” How many times have we told our kids to apologize for saying or doing something hurtful to someone else?

Honestly, forcing my 5-year-old, Sofia, to apologize in the heat of the moment makes me feel better as a parent. But when she doesn’t mean it, I feel guilty because I believe it’s a poor lesson to make her say empty words without meaning.

After a couple of embarrassing “I’m not sorry” episodes with Sofia on the playground, and hearing other moms struggling with the same situation, I thought to myself that there must be a better way to get kids to apologize and mean it.

Some child psychologists suggest asking your kids questions such as, “What were you feeling when you did this?” or, “How do you think it made your sister feel when you did this?” I tried that a couple of times and it didn’t seem to work well for my Sofia. She just felt the questions were blaming her. I started experimenting with other ideas and found that a logical explanation went a long way.

When a heated situation arises and I have two kids crying, pointing fingers and tattling right in front of me, I start by asking them to take a deep breath and stop crying. I have them face each other and I put my arms around them. I ask each child what happened. I then say something like this, “I can see both of you are hurt and upset. Do we want to make things better?”

They usually respond with a “yes.” I say, “OK, Sofia, Stella didn’t like it when you were forcing her to play on the monkey bars when she wanted to swing. Let’s take turns and play with both. And, Stella, Sofia got her feelings hurt when you told her that she’s not your best friend anymore. Do you really mean that?” Usually, the answer is “no.” I then respond, “If you don’t mean those words, then you shouldn’t say them. We don’t want to hurt each other.”

When I explain things logically, the kids seem to understand much better and not make it a big deal. I hug it out with them, tickle them, tell them I love them and say, “OK, now go play and have fun!”

I try to minimize the conflict so they can see their problems are important but not worth fighting about. Of course, this all depends on what the conflict is and what the disagreement is about.

It’s important for children to understand that it’s OK to feel mad, sad or frustrated, and that it’s OK not to agree all the time, but that finding a solution and coming to terms with those feelings is important and a part of life.

A verbal apology would be great, but I think comprehending what is happening and what needs to be done to fairly resolve the problem is just as important. And since children learn best through parent modeling, I do a lot of apologizing at home. I try to model what a good apology looks like for our kids, and what it means to take responsibility for our actions. I recently apologized to my 5-year-old by saying, “I’m sorry I overreacted when you spilled your milk in the car. I know it was an accident and I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.” I’ve said this to Sofia many times. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s a part of life and when we apologize to our kids, we teach them everyone apologizes — even teens and adults.

Don’t forget that teaching your kids to forgive and accept an apology is just as important. For real healing after an apology is given, have your child say something like, “That’s OK” or, “I forgive you.”

Daniella Guzman is the anchor on NBC4 Southern California’s Today in LA weekday morning newscast, 4:30-7 a.m. A mother of two, Daniella’s column, On the Record, brings her views on parenting, fun family activities and her take on work-life balance. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @daniellanbcla.

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