"It has been a long day," read the text message. "The kids have been arguing for almost one whole hour, and I really need your help when you get back."
I re-read the message from my wife. It was evening, and I had just finished a long day of counselling classes. I really felt I needed to rest. Yet I could read the anxiety and exhaustion in my wife’s message, and I knew I had to help her manage the situation when I got home.
Once in the door, I could sense the tension in the air. Both of my sons had just been admonished by my wife, and were sitting with solemn faces, one child still in tears. On a regular day I might have also gotten upset. However, I had the journey home to prepare myself mentally.
“E, I can see that you are very upset with your brother. However, in this family it is not acceptable to say those words to your brother and to mummy. What you can do instead is to jump on the trampoline if you feel you are unable to control your emotions.”
My son looked at me, his emotional outburst having all but ceased. He then proceeded to the trampoline and did a few jumps. Then, a few minutes later, he returned to his toys, marking an end to the tense moment.
It was now time to address the situation, and I managed to get both boys to apologise to each other and to mummy.
"Sorry" cannot occur without us addressing the difficult emotions first.
When our kids do something wrong, we often feel the need to get them to say they’re sorry. However, when we try to force our children to apologise while in a state of heightened emotional arousal, our attempts will likely fail or result in an insincere apology. "Sorry" cannot occur without us addressing the difficult emotions first.
How can we help our kids to apologise and to mean it? Here is a 3-step approach:
Establish a culture of forgiveness and grace
Children model the behaviour they see in their parents. If we want our children to learn to say sorry, we need to first do that ourselves. Recognise that we too are imperfect people, and be quick to own our mistakes and make amends to our spouse and to our kids. When our children observe us making sincere apologies, they will also learn the life-skill of making an apology.
When my wife and I get into an argument, the best thing we’ve learnt to do is to give ourselves time and space to cool down.
Calm your child down
When we are angry, the last thing we want to do would be to say sorry. This is the same for us as well as for our kids. When my wife and I get into an argument, the best thing we’ve learnt to do is to give ourselves time and space to cool down.
When both of us are calm, we would then come together to share our feelings and reconcile. We can teach our kids to do likewise. Give them tools and strategies to help them regain their calm.
The approach I used with my child was adapted from the A-C-T model developed by Dr Garry Landreth, a leading figure in play therapy.
Here are the steps:
Acknowledge the feeling: “E, I can see that you are very upset with your brother.”
Communicate the limit: “However, in this family it is not acceptable to say those words to your brother and to mummy.”
Target acceptable alternatives: “What you can do instead is to jump on the trampoline if you feel you are unable to control your emotions.”
I am still learning how to use my newfound knowledge in my day-to-day interactions with my children. But what I do know is that when we create a safe and forgiving environment for our children, they will gradually get more adept at managing their emotions, and grow to become more sociable and gracious in their interactions with others – which includes being humble enough to admit their mistakes and apologise.
© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mental wellness and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 11 and 9.
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