Sunday, December 22, 2013
In families, everyone makes mistakes. But what is the best way to apologize and repair what was broken?
Psychologists, ethicists and theologians have identified the key elements of apology: accepting responsibility, making recompense, committing to do better, and expressing understanding of the other’s experience.
But there are other ways as well, that may be just as effective, although less direct and less verbally driven.
A young teen, over-identified with his parents’ angry view of one another, verbally attacked his sibling during a family therapy session. He then verbally attacked the therapist when the parents were asked to remove him from the room because his behavior had become abusive. In the subsequent family session, he declared that he would say nothing further, that he was “done” with therapy and the therapist if he wasn’t going to be allowed to “say what is on my mind.” He busied himself with an art project rather than participate directly although he hinted with evident attentiveness to the discussion that he wanted to be part of the group again. Most significantly, he did not take after his sibling as he had done repeatedly in prior sessions. He “got it” that he was expected to modify his behavior towards his sibling and self-corrected, but how was he going to repair matters with the therapist, whom he had also attacked?
Rather than tackle this head on, knowing such would likely trigger another meltdown by this exceptionally reactive and defensive boy, the therapist waited to see how he would solve this dilemma for himself. And he did. In a subsequent session, the boy said he had seen a short video in school (a TedTalk by Eduardo Briceno) that was helpful to him. After playing it on his mother’s smart phone, he explained how the video had given him a new perspective on personal challenges and personal growth, how he could see each setback as an opportunity to learn rather than a measure of success or failure, and that he immediately thought it would be a good addition to the therapist’s tool box of educational material. In other words, he gifted the video to the therapist and the family.
And with that, he had “squared” himself with the therapist—who accepted his “apology” gracefully and without further comment. This boy had found a way to repair matters without losing face or embarrassing himself; he could leave feeling proud that he had brought something positive to the family and to the therapist, rather than ashamed that his prior comments had been so mean and hateful.
Apologies succeed when the bid is genuine and the recipient is receptive. In the above instance, the therapist and the parents recognized the boy's effort, accepted the way he presented it, and let the matter be settled.