Eitan D. Schwarz, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A., F.A.A.C.A.P.
CLINICAL ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, FEINBERG SCHOOL OF MEDICINE
Copyright © 2002 Eitan D Schwarz. All rights reserved. This handout may be copied and distributed only for non-profit educational use.
Relationships do not stand still. They are dynamic and in constant flux. Invariably, they become bruised. If healed, they survive and thrive. If not repaired or if damaged beyond repair, a relationship deteriorates and dies.
When one partner injures another, their relationship is damaged. Injury usually takes the form of an emotional insult, neglect, or betrayal alone or accompanying physical injury or neglect.
The cycle of damage, apology, and forgiveness is an essential mechanism for repair and growth of relationships. You can try to repair damage with a full, open, and dignified apology. If the cycle is completed with forgiveness, the relationship is restored and even strengthened. If the injury is massive or repetitive, especially to a more vulnerable and dependent partner like a child, apology and forgiveness may not repair the damage.
Below is an outline that can be used with all partners. Here we emphasize an adult apologizing to a child:
- Recognize and acknowledge to the child his injury (“I know I hurt you. It wasn’t right. You don’t deserve to be hurt this way,” not “But you hurt me too.”)
- Take genuine and direct responsibility (“I was definitely wrong!” and not “I didn’t know what I was doing,” or “You made me do it.”)
- Validate the child’s legitimate right to a reaction(“You are right to blame me and be angry with me,” not “Please don’t be angry with me.”)
- Apologize sincerely and mean it (“I am really sorry!” not “You should be sorry too because it was partially your fault.”)
- Ask for forgiveness (“Please forgive me,” not “Let’s forgive each other.”)
- Resolve not to repeat this mistake and make a promise you can keep (“I will really try not to do this again,” not “I’ll never never do it again.”
- Respect the child’s need to think and decide (“Take your time to think about whether you can decide to forgive me. It is important to me that you really mean it if you do.”)
- Empower and give the child a real choice. Do not pressure or bribe a child or expect automatic forgiveness (“If you don’t want to forgive me, I will understand.”)
- Accept forgiveness with gratitude (“Thank you. It really means a lot to me that you forgave me.”)
- Accept the child’s hesitation or refusal to forgive you graciously and without retribution (“I will ask you again later because you forgiveness is so important to me.”)
- Refrain from your damaging behavior in the future.
This is a chance to show your child that you hold him in high esteem and help him restore his own self esteem. You can help him feel respected and teach him that injury can be repaired; that powerful adults can be kind; that his own forgiveness can be powerful and good; that occasional anger can be part of good relationships; that people can be trusted, even when not perfect; and that it is good to take responsibility for regrettable behavior.
Learning about hurt, apology, and forgiveness are crucial to appreciating how loving people work hard to repair damage to important relationships. This can be a lesson about how love can actually work for adults too.