Apologies are important. They repair relationships and ensure we stay connected with those we love despite our mistakes or wrong doings. A real, meaningful apology requires empathy.
When we are embarrassed by our child’s behaviour we may feel pulled to force an apology out of our child for politeness sake (and to save face with the other adult).
But when we ask our child to “say sorry” straight after a wrong doing what we are doing is asking them to say the words out loud. But an apology without empathy or understanding is meaningless, and worse – an insincere apology can be dangerous. Children may learn the message that saying “sorry” fixes everything. You can push a child and say “I am sorry” and move on, or even do it again. Forcing children to say "I am sorry" does not teach empathy.
Empathy takes time to develop and does so at a different pace for each child. The younger a child is the less developmentally ready they will be to understand the complex meaning of an apology. Children do not instantly absorb a situation or have the understanding adults do about behaviours and relationships – if they did, they would not be acting out as they are. Children need time to digest an experience and process it.
Children often feel overwhelmed when something goes wrong. “How did my baby sister fall over when all I did was give her a little push to get past?”. They are not aware of their strength and they cannot yet control their impulses (and by ‘yet’ I mean they will not have fully developed impulse control until they pass puberty!)
So, what do you do when our child hurts someone, break someone else’s property or needs to make amends to someone?
In some cases and when your child is acting out because they are tired, frustrated, or showing aggression (kicking, hitting etc..) the most supportive thing to do is to intervene and take them out of the situation and help them self-regulate or take them home (see my post on Time Out and Time In). Your child is unlikely to be able to feel empathy, remorse or even reflect on what has just happened while they are experiencing heightened levels of emotion. So asking them to compose themselves and express an apology with sincere regret is an unrealistic expectation.
Instead, if an apology is needed the right thing to do is for you to apologise to the child and/or adults involved.
If your child is old enough to understand an apology, it is still best not to direct the child to respond. If you want your child to express an honest apology you must be patient and not force the words out. If the goal is for your child to make amends with genuine regret, you must learn to trust your child to find the words in time.
Instead of forcing an apology you can acknowledge the situation, wait, and then model the behaviour you want to see your child do.
For example, if your child pushes another child at the playground:
Acknowledge: (to the other child) “Ouch, I am sorry Carlos pushed you and you fell over. You have a graze on your knew where you fell that looks really sore”
Validate: (to the other child) “I see it hurts, you are crying I am so sorry”.
Support: “Is there anything I can do help? Who did you come with to the park?”
By doing this you are modelling to your child the behaviour you want to see in them. With older children you may begin to notice by doing this rather than forcing an apology from them that they naturally start to respond and do something that shows they have empathy for the person or situation. For example, some children may offer another a pat on the back, or a tissue for their tears, or even give them a toy to make them smile. These are all acts of authentic empathy, and more valuable than two words “I am sorry”.
You are the most powerful example to your child. You can teach “I am sorry” by modelling what this looks like in practice. Get better at apologising to others as well as to your child. It is good for your child to learn that you make mistakes and that you can learn from them too.
“I am sorry I shouted at you earlier when you couldn’t tie your laces. I was feeling stressed and we were running late. That is not your fault. I made a mistake by shouting. I am sorry. I love you”
While you model how to apologise to your child, your child will inadvertently teach you about
forgiveness. Children forgive us for shouting when we lose our patience, telling them off for things they don’t understand yet, sending them to their room when we are the ones that truly need a break, and many others. And if you have ever observed children play and fight you will have seen that they usually forgive immediately and start playing again together as though nothing has happened.
Trust that your child will develop empathy by observing how you behave and experiencing authentic social responses. By doing this rather than forcing it you offer your child the self-confidence to become a sensitive and deeply caring adult.
If you are struggling with parenting or feel that talking about your situation would be helpful in giving you a new perspective do not hesitate to contact me or book in a 20min telephone consultation.