Sorry seems to be the kindest word for kids

By Jasminee Sahoye
When adults apologize to kids it repairs the relationship, a study finds.

Most adults would accept a quick apology for a minor wrongdoing, but do apologies have this effect on children?
A recent University of Virginia (UVA) psychology study, published in the journal Social Development, shows that apologies are important even to children who are six or seven years old.
This is an age when they are undergoing dramatic and important changes in cognitive development – when they are moving from preschool years to middle childhood and are building social skill foundations that will last a lifetime.
“What was surprising was that children who experienced a minor transgression and heard an apology felt just as bad as those who did not hear an apology,” said Marissa Drell, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at UVA and the study’s lead author.
“But those who heard the transgressor say ‘I’m sorry’ actually shared more with that person later. The apology repaired the relationship even though it did not mitigate their hurt feelings.”
Drell created a situation where children were the victims of a minor accident. The children and an adult research assistant were asked to build towers out of plastic cups.
As the child was almost completing his or her tower, the adult asked to borrow a cup from the child and in so doing toppled the child’s tower. She either apologized or said nothing and then left the room.
The children were asked how they felt and those who received an apology reported feeling just as bad as those who did not. But when deciding how many stickers to give to the research assistant, those who heard an apology were more generous.
“Even though an apology didn’t make children feel better, it did help to facilitate forgiveness,” Drell said. “They seem to have recognized it as a signal that the transgressor felt bad about what she had done and may have been implicitly promising not to do it again.”
One form of amends resulted in an even better outcome: Children who had their towers knocked over and then received the transgressor’s help in partially rebuilding it both felt better and shared more with her.
“Restitution – some sort of active effort to make repairs after a transgression – can make the victim feel better because it may undo some of the harm and it can repair the relationship by showing the transgressor’s commitment to it,” Drell said.
A related study at the University of Rochester, the University of Minnesota, and Mt. Hope Family Centre identified how specific patterns of cortisol activity may relate to the cognitive abilities of children in poverty. The study also outlines how greater instability in family environments and harsh and insensitive care-giving in the context of poverty may predict these different types of cortisol activity in children.
Researchers examined children’s cortisol levels over three consecutive years in 201 low-income mother-child pairs. When children were age two, researchers observed them playing with their mothers and collected extensive information about families’ experiences, such as how stable the family home was and whether children had been exposed to domestic violence.
They collected cortisol through children’s saliva when they were two, three, and four years old. When children were four, researchers measured their cognitive abilities.
“Overall, we found three cortisol profiles among the children, which were categorized as elevated, moderate, and low,” explains Jennifer H. Suor, doctoral student in clinical psychology at University of Rochester, the study’s first author.
“We found that children’s cortisol levels remained relatively stable across the three years. And we discovered that exposure to specific forms of family adversity when children were two years old predicted their cortisol profile, which in turn was linked with notable differences in children’s cognitive functioning at age four.”
The study found that about 30% of the children observed maintained relatively higher cortisol levels over the three years, 40% maintained lower cortisol levels and the remainder had moderate levels.
Children with both higher and lower levels had experienced family instability. In addition, children with the higher cortisol pattern had experienced harsher and more insensitive interactions with caregivers.
“Low-income children are at increased risk for developing cognitive delays but the specific environmental and biological factors that influence these outcomes are less understood,” explains Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, assistant professor of psychology at University of Rochester who was part of the research team.