Teaching teens how to say ‘I’m sorry’: the 6 Rs of a real apology

One thing is for sure when you have a teen with ADHD (or any teen for that matter): you will likely encounter a lot situations where they make a mistake, screw something up or get in trouble and they come to you saying, “I’m sorry.”

A lot of times, kids apologize automatically because they know it’s expected and/or because they are trying to keep from getting in trouble.  And a lot of times, these apologies really mean nothing—in a very short time, they’re often back to doing the very same thing they apologized for only moments before.

This isn’t because they are bad kids. All it means is that they haven’t learned how to properly apologize.

How to apologize: what the research says

I did some research online and believe it or not, I found a scientific paper called, “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies,” (published in the May 2016 issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. You can read the abstract  online.) In this study, social scientists found that not all apologies are equally effective. Across two studies, they found that the most compelling apologies include six distinct elements. I’ve organized their categories into The 6 Rs of an Effective Apology.

To be effective, an apology should include the following:

  • An expression of Regret: actually feeling regret, saying, “I’m sorry” and meaning it.
  • An explanation (Realization) of what went wrong: showing insight into why it happened (without blame), understanding the effect the action had on the other person (empathy).
  • An acknowledgment of Responsibility: taking full blame/ownership. No excuses.
  • A declaration of Repentance: explaining how exactly they plan to do things differently so it doesn’t happen again.
  • An offer of Repair: Finding ways to “make it right”
  • A Request for forgiveness

In their study, the scientists pointed out that not all of the components carry equal weight—the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility—which interestingly enough is often the hardest for people because taking ownership of a ‘screw up’ conflicts with our self-image as a good person. That’s why it’s so common that instead of owning a mistake, we try to blame what happened on extenuating circumstances, or point a finger at the other person for “triggering” our bad behavior. For example, maybe you’ve heard (or said):

I’m sorry BUT___( some excuse for why the behavior happened)

I’m sorry THAT ____(putting the blame on the person wronged, e.g., “I’m sorry that you are upset,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” etc.)

In these instances, it’s not a true or effective apology; it’s really just an excuse, often said to appease the other person or to diffuse the situation. Or, it’s an attempt to deflect blame–essentially saying, “you (or they or it) made me do it.”

Is ADHD a legitimate excuse?

I have a lot of parents ask me: isn’t it true that ADHD is to blame for a lot of ‘screw ups’?

My answer: while it is true that ADHD symptoms can often result in undesirable behavior and ‘screw ups’, there is a big difference between using ADHD as an explanation versus an excuse.

In other words, it’s one thing to understand and acknowledge that the ADHD is a contributing factor to behavior and reactions, i.e. symptoms of ADHD include impulsivity and difficulty understanding cause and effect, etc. But it’s quite another to use ADHD as an excuse, where you essentially say, “They can’t help it,” and you give them a free pass—no Responsibility, no Repentance, no Repair.

Using the 6 Rs with ADHD

Here’s an example of using the elements of the 6 Rs when your teen has ADHD:  Let’s say your teen’s ADHD causes severe impulsivity and difficulty controlling emotions. One day, in a fit of frustration, he calls you a bunch of terrible names and throws a large object at you.

When he apologizes, it’s appropriate for him recognize and to acknowledge that it’s an ADHD thing that contributed to how he reacted, (i.e., his ADHD symptoms were acting up), but in order for it to be a true apology, he must also commit to do what he can to keep it from happening again—the Rs of responsibility and repentance. So this means that in addition to explaining his insights into what happened, he must also commit to finding ways to address/deal with/compensate for his ADHD symptoms so that he doesn’t do this same thing again, (e.g,  promise to take his medication or learn some anger management and coping skills, etc.)

Well worth the effort

I think that “how to apologize” is an important skill to learn and teach! If you can start teaching/coaching your teen on the 6 required elements now, while they’re in the ‘shallow end’, they’ll be much better at it when they are in the ‘deep end’ of adulthood, like in a job or in a relationship with a spouse.

Questions or concerns? I’d love to hear from you!