Teaching the Skills of “I’m Sorry”
I recently posted here on how important it is to teach your kids to apologize. In this followup, I’d like to expand on that, discussing ways in which you can help your child learn this important social skill.
For kids on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s Disorder, or impulsive kids, like those with ADHD, as well as any kids who struggle with social skills, an apology may not come easily. So, what can a parent do to help a child learn the social rules of an apology? Are there special tips for kids on the autistic spectrum? Here are a few things you can try.
1) Make apologizing an experience, not just a conversation.
Since kids on the autistic spectrum often have trouble generalizing lessons from one setting to another, experiential learning is best. Parents need to be paying attention here, not to create an apology-ready situation, but to be ready when the situation comes up naturally. Play dates, school situations, even unstructured time on the playground can all result in hurt feelings, and a chance for you to practice the art of apology with your child. Any accident can be a chance to give or get an apology, and because it’s an actual experience, instead of a discussion, the lesson might be more meaningful.
2) Lead by example.
The best way to teach your child to apologize is to be sure to be generous in giving your own apologies. Some parents may worry that offering an apology to a child is not appropriate for an adult, that it may show their kids that they’re human and prone to mistakes. But seriously - your kids already know that you’re human! Your kids need to see that everybody makes mistakes, even parents! Kids who experience the relief of getting an apology will have an easier time offering one. If you bump into your child, “Oh, I’m sorry.” can show how it’s done. Adding, “I didn’t mean to do that.” further shows that an apology doesn’t have to be reserved for deliberate events.
3) Try Role-Plays
For these kids, sitting around discussing things probably won’t have much meaning, but sometimes role-plays, especially reenacting troublesome events that actually happened, can invest the lesson with a more concrete, meaningful tone. Many older kids on the spectrum will agonize over mistakes they’ve made. A reenacting role-play may be the way to give the event a happier ending, and let your child rest.
4) Turn the Tables
Sometimes the best lessons come when your child is the inadvertently injured party. If an apology is forthcoming, casually point out that the apology doesn’t indicate negative intent. If your wronged child doesn’t get the apology that’s expected, this can be the perfect opportunity to turn the experience into a concrete and meaningful lesson. Try a conversation starter like, “You seem really upset that Brenda didn’t apologize to you.” After empathizing with your child’s feelings, it might be useful to say, “I wonder if John felt the same way when you yelled at him yesterday?” You don’t have to follow this with a detailed analysis, you can just leave that statement hanging.
5) Make It Visual
For visual thinkers, like a lot of kids on the spectrum, it helps to present a situation in visual terms. Tools like Social Stories ™ or Comic Strip Conversations from Carol Gray can make a complex interaction more straightforward. Draw a picture of the situation, with your child and the other kids. Give everyone a speech balloon and a thought bubble, so you can explore what each character is doing, saying, and thinking.
There are lots more techniques, but these simple tips can get your child on the road to learning a great new social skill.
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Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.