Apology has a healing nature

Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i Teen Court focuses on restorative justice. The emphasis is on “restore.” The whole purpose is for respondents to repair the harm or negative effects caused by their actions.

In the intake questionnaire, respondents are asked who was harmed or affected by their offense. The next question is “What do you need to do to make things right?” Nearly 100 percent of the respondents state that they need to apologize. Some have already done so by the intake meeting, but most haven’t. Since they respondents themselves recognize the need to apologize, often the sentencing juries in Teen Court require the respondents to write apology letters. They have to be turned in and approved by the Teen Court manager because, in many cases, this is the main way that the respondent makes it right with his or her victim. I’ve had respondents tell me that it was the hardest part of their sentence, but we help them through it.

If the purpose of the apology letter is to make things right, then kids also need to have empathy for how their victims might feel.

They might be afraid that you’ll do it again. They might not trust you or what you say, so you may have to earn that trust and respect back. Your letter may include asking the person what they would need from you to prove to them that you are trustworthy again.

The first time I saw “Oh, Dad, sorry for do” as an apology letter, I decided that the kids needed some guidance on exactly what an apology is. I tell the respondents that when they apologize it means:

• You recognize that you made a mistake.

• You realize that the mistake hurt or affected someone.

• You want to let that person know that you learned from this and won’t do it again.

• You want things to be right between you again. You may even ask to be forgiven.

Why is it so hard to apologize? I know that I hate to make mistakes, but we all make them, and we all want those mistakes forgiven. No one wants to be wrong. The way to be smart again is to learn from your mistake. If you keep making excuses for why you did what you did, you’re not really learning. You’re expecting people to forgive you for your mistake that you might make again if you find yourself in the same situation.

Research shows that people are more likely to forgive you if you seem as though you have learned that what you did was a mistake, that you’ve learned a better way to get your needs met, and you tell them that you won’t do it again.

No matter how much peer pressure you may feel, you are the only one in control of your choices, and you have to accept responsibility for the choices that you make. If you are being forced with harm to do something you don’t want to do, call the police. Luckily, most people truly want to believe that you’ve changed, and will forgive you.

Sometimes the way we learn how we want to live is by discovering how we don’t want to live. I may think that I want that MP3 player that I see hanging out of a classmate’s backpack, so I take it. But then the guilt or the embarrassment of being caught or seeing the sadness in the classmate’s face just isn’t worth it. In my heart, I’m really sorry that I caused the pain. By giving it back, and sincerely meaning the above four points, I have a good chance of healing the relationship again, although once stung the person will probably take a while before their guard is completely down again.

If I don’t apologize, I’m leaving the negative situation between us. Sometimes over time people remember incorrectly what happened or memories become distorted. It is best to apologize quickly when you recognize your error. There is less time for the negativity to fester. Your chances of being forgiven improve. My friend Arthur DeFries told me that his Hawaiian family told him, “Never let the sun go down without forgiving anyone you feel has hurt you.”

Many of the world’s great spiritual leaders teach us that the outer world we live in is a reflection of our inner world, and that to help create world peace, we need to create peace inside of ourselves. New Year’s is coming up. People make resolutions. If your resolution is to feel more peaceful, maybe you’d like to think about apologizing to someone that needs it, or forgiving someone who has hurt you.

May 2008 be the year of your highest dreams for your life.

• Annaleah Atkinson is the Teen Court manager for Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i. She can be reached at aatkinson@haleopio.org, or Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i Inc., 2959 Umi St., Lihu‘e, HI 96766.


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