We all want our kids to be polite and respectful and to learn the importance of a meaningful apology, right? We want them to be considerate of other people’s feelings and make amends when they do the wrong thing.
And so, when we witness an interaction where our child is in the wrong, we usually suggest they apologise. In fact, we often demand it. Perhaps they’ve snatched a toy from a friend. Hit their sister. Knocked over their brother’s block tower. Or refused to share the slide at the park. And so we immediately jump in with, “You’ve made your friend cry! It’s not ok to hit! Apologise right now!”
I hear these kinds of interactions every single day. And they are well meaning. But they are also ineffective and generally do a better job of easing our own anxiety than they do of teaching our kids to have empathy for others. In fact, rather than helping our kids learn to take ownership of their mistakes, they tend to create resentment, anger or shame. And in doing so, they actually make it less likely our kids will want to apologise in the future.
The problem with forced apologies
There are a few reasons why forced apologies are not having the impact you think they are.
1. They teach kids to lie
When we force children to say sorry, even when they don’t mean it – we are teaching them to be insincere. Your child may not actually feel sorry about what they’ve done. And that’s ok. It takes time for children to develop empathy and to understand how their actions impact others. Forcing them to say sorry before they truly understand this won’t help them learn it any faster. In fact, it may make it harder for them to learn it!
2. They teach kids that words alone are enough
When we focus only on the words, we teach children that words are all it takes to make amends. That no matter how they have behaved, saying the words “I’m sorry” will make everything better. What we really want is children who understand why it’s important to say sorry. Children who understand the impact of their actions and genuinely want to make things right. Because in reality, repairing a rift in a relationship takes more than a few cursory words someone forced you to say.
3. They teach kids to distrust their own feelings
Forced apologies teach children that the feelings of the other person are more important than their own. Sometimes when we are involved in a disagreement or conflict, we need time to cool down and reflect on our own actions. This reflection is often needed in order for us to acknowledge our own role in a conflict or admit we made a mistake. When we immediately jump in and force an apology, we rob children of this reflection time that allows them to come naturally to an apology. We also teach them that they should ignore their own feelings about the situation and instead, focus only on the other person. This can lead to adults who chronically people please, lack the confidence to stand up for themselves and don’t know how to get their own needs met.
4. They create shame and resentment
Forced apologies, particularly if your child fears punishment or being called out in front of others, can lead to feelings of shame and resentment. When children feel shame over their actions, it is hard for them to feel empathy for others. When we teach children that apologies are given when someone in power makes us, or because it’s simply what is expected, we turn apologies into a negative thing. Something that is done begrudgingly and without sincerity. This makes it less likely that they will apologise in the future and can lead to adults who struggle to offer apologies to others due to the deep shame they have associated with making a mistake.
What to do instead?
Just because forced apologies are out, that doesn’t mean we just allow kids to hurt others – physically or emotionally – without consequence. We still want them to understand the impact of their actions and learn how to offer meaningful and sincere apologies when they mess up. It just needs to be done in a developmentally appropriate way that meets kids where they are at and allows for them to learn. Here’s what you can try instead.
1. Model how to apologise
The first thing we need to do if we want to raise children who know how to offer sincere apologies to others is to apologise to them when we make mistakes. Many adults struggle with apologies themselves and are especially reluctant to offer apologies to children. But when we normalise apologising to children, they are able to understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of an apology. They also learn that mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of and apologising doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
2. Help kids understand emotions
Children cannot really offer sincere apologies or make amends until they understand how their actions impact others. The development of empathy is largely developmental, but we can also help our children with this skill by talking to them frequently about emotions – theirs and others. But it’s important that we do this without shaming or blaming our children. So instead of, “Look what you did! You made your friend cry, apologise right now!”, try, “Your friend is crying, I wonder how she is feeling right now?” If your child is unsure, help them make the link by giving them an example, “You cried yesterday when you felt sad about your toy breaking. I wonder if your friend feels sad now too?”
3. Give children a choice
Children need to understand why we apologise before they can understand how to apologise. We can help children understand the concept of the apology and then allow them to choose for themselves whether they want to offer one. Try saying something like this: “Would you like to say sorry to your friend? We say sorry when we feel bad about something we’ve done or a mistake we’ve made. It can sometimes help us and our friends feel better.”
4. Teach them how to make amends
Apologies are more than just saying sorry. So let’s teach our kids how to make amends and repair relationships with others when they mess up. How you do this will depend on the situation, and the age of your child. But start by pointing out how the other child feels. For example, if the other child is crying, you might say, “It looks like your friend feels sad. How can we help her feel better?” If your child isn’t sure, offer a few suggestions. “You like to get a hug when you feel sad. Maybe your friend would like a hug?” If the other child is physically hurt, you can suggest your child gets them an ice pack or a bandage. Young children will need a lot of guidance here, but as they get older, encourage them to think about meaningful ways to make amends, and with practice, they will get better!
5. Apologise for them
What if you try all of this and your child still refuses to say sorry or make amends? That’s ok. Your child is still learning and it doesn’t mean that they are selfish or rude or entitled. It just means they are kids. Sometimes they need more time. Sometimes their own big feelings will prevent them from making amends. Sometimes they have had a previous negative experience of saying sorry, so it will take some time to learn a new response.
But mostly, the development of empathy takes time. And we all need to have our own feelings acknowledged before we can offer empathy to others. So if your child is still feeling upset about the interaction, they may not be ready to offer an apology yet. They may still feel that their own upset or hurt has not been acknowledged and understood yet. So acknowledge this for them. “You’re not ready to apologise yet huh? That’s ok, maybe you’re still feeling angry/sad/hurt yourself. Maybe you’ll be ready to apologise later.”
And then, feel free to offer up the apology yourself instead and model how it’s done. “I see you’re not ready to apologise yet, so I’ll do it instead.” To the other child, you may say something like, “Sorry you got hurt Timmy. Johnny was feeling frustrated and that came out as a big push. What can we do to help you feel better?”
Now, your 3 year old child may not ever decide to apologise for pushing little Timmy. Which kinda sucks. But by not forcing the issue, and instead, modelling sincere apologies and teaching him how to do it himself now, you’re laying important groundwork. You’re setting him up to be a kind, respectful adult who considers the impacts of his actions, owns his mistakes, and offers genuine, sincere apologies. And that’s far more important than forcing him to repeat a few little words on demand.
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in kids and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.