One of the social skills that I teach kids is the difference between an accident, something done on purpose, or an impulse. All of these require some sort of repair but in different ways.
I have met many children and teens over the years that are constantly apologizing. To the point of too much apologizing for every small thing they do or think they might have done. To me, it’s a sign of a child who is a perfectionist and wants to please, one who may have low self-esteem, or an ADHD child who frequently messes up. There are other times when a child uses apologizing as an avoidance tactic, thinking if they just give a quick “I’m sorry” that the issue will go away.
So, what are the differences between an accident, something o purpose, or an impulse, and what should we teach kids to do based on which one the action is?
An accident is just that. Something that happened with absolutely no intent. Let’s use someone’s block tower on the floor as a simple example. A child walks by and maybe they are paying attention to something someone is saying and accidentally bumps the tower and it crashes to the floor. In this instance, particularly for children who apologize for their very existence it seems, I suggest that they repair it, not with an apology, but by saying something to the effect of, “Oh no! That was an accident. I didn’t see the tower there. Let me help you rebuild it.”
An on-purpose choice would be a child deciding with intent, to kick the tower over. Without getting into the much longer and deeper topic of bullying, saying that the children are typically friendly and the child who kicks it feels some remorse, this is where an apology is necessary. A correct apology sounds something like this, “I’m sorry for knocking over your tower. It wasn’t nice of me to kick it, and I won’t do it again.” An apology is never to come with an excuse or trying to pass along the blame, such as, “Well, YOU shouldn’t have built it there.”
An impulse is the tricky one. It is neither a complete accident nor done completely on purpose. There is some intent, but no thought of the outcome beyond the action. I see the tower. It would be fun to kick the tower over. The desire overrides the knowledge that it shouldn’t be done, and the tower gets kicked. This leaves an impulsive kid in a position of having done something not nice, without meaning to make their friend upset. Here is where ADHD kids need support. They need to know that while impulsivity is part of their brain make-up, and it’s hard for them to stop themselves at times, that there is sometimes going to be a negative outcome.
It is crucial they understand that taking responsibility for the impulsive act is going to go much better for them than denial, lying, or covering their butts in the various ways they try to do. As adults, we can coach them (and some kids will require frequent coaching) by saying something like, “I can see (or I understand) that you kicked the tower before you had a chance to think about it. It’s hard for you to predict what will happen sometimes, and you didn’t mean to upset anyone. But your friend is upset that the tower was kicked over, so what you can you do to make it okay again?” In this case, it’s offering to repair the tower, in order to repair the friendship.