“Trust that one day, because of the time you invested, your child will be able to offer authentic, empathic apologies.”
What You’ll Learn
- Why can it be difficult for my child to apologize?
- What is the connection between genuine apologies and prosocial behavior?
- How can I encourage my child to make the decision to apologize?
You’re at the playground enjoying a conversation with another parent while your child plays alongside a friend from school. Things are going great and all of a sudden, they aren’t. In a matter of seconds, you notice that your child has taken their friend’s shovel without asking. The friend attempts to take the shovel back and your child hits them with it. The friend begins to cry and your child is sitting there, seemingly unfazed by what just happened.
You are mortified. You start to think, why would my child do that? What will this parent think of my child? What will they think of me? Is my child bad? Your first instinct is to tell your child to apologize immediately, but instead, you take a deep breath and remind yourself…
- My child is learning. They are not bad, they are always good inside.
- I cannot control what another parent thinks of me or my child.
- This is a learning opportunity for myself and my child.
The Shame in Apologizing
Apologizing is one of the earliest interpersonal skills children learn; and yet, offering a genuine apology is a skill most people (not just children) struggle with. Whether accidental or intentional, it does not feel good to cause harm to others—the act of apologizing, although critical to connect and repair relationships, feels shameful.
Shame is a strong emotion, and when it is ignored by ourselves or others, it negatively influences the beliefs we hold about ourselves. Even young children have the capacity to feel shame and internalize this emotion as a reflection of their “badness.” When this happens, children often withdraw and the opportunity to offer a genuine apology, or any form of apology for that matter, is lost. Dr. Becky (Good Inside) suggests that refusing to apologize is a sign of defensiveness that stems from shame.
Let’s think about the example I provided earlier. What would happen if the parent did force their child to apologize immediately, without considering the shame their child was probably feeling? More often than not, forcing a child to apologize will end in one of three ways:
- The child might quickly say “sorry” and continue playing
- The child will simply refuse to say anything
- The child will become even more dysregulated
Apologizing can be an uncomfortable and vulnerable experience, and a forced apology only exacerbates the shame already felt from making a mistake, resulting in ineffective responses.
A child’s ability to genuinely apologize does not happen through force. Sincere and genuine apologies happen when the adults in a child’s life first help to reduce the shame. This starts with empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Empathy → Genuine Apology
A genuine apology helps to support, maintain and restore positive relationships. They are a way to show concern and care for another person and to demonstrate your willingness to make things right without expecting anything in return.
An effective, genuine apology does not stop at “sorry.” Instead, offering an apology is a restorative process that includes four critical components:
- Expressing regret
- Validating the other person’s feelings
- Admitting responsibility
- Focusing on solutions
This process, however, is only possible when we have the skill to empathize with others. Empathy not only drives our decision to apologize, but also influences the effectiveness of how we apologize. Young children are able to develop this skill and if we want to increase the likelihood that they apologize and apologize genuinely, we have to provide them with opportunities to witness others’ empathy and to practice. With support and practice, apologizing becomes less shameful and easier to do.
Coaching and Practicing Empathetic Apologies
Now that we understand why it can be so difficult for children to apologize and the importance of promoting empathy to help your child apologize rather than forcing them to, here are some ways you can encourage your child to make the decision to apologize with empathy:
1. Model empathic apologies
Children learn through experience and have to be on the receiving end of a genuine apology to be able to do this themselves. Make mistakes and model how you take responsibility, acknowledge others’ feelings, and offer support.
2. Build social-emotional skills
When children are able to identify others’ feelings, it is easier for them to show empathy and apologize. Help your child recognize emotions, name them, and utilize tools to deal with them. This takes a lot of practice!
3. View mistakes as learning opportunities
Everybody makes mistakes and children generally feel bad when they have hurt another person (emotionally or physically). Try not to overact and force your child to apologize (remember, this will increase their feelings of shame and likely cause them to withdraw). Instead, present curiosity and empathy. When your child knows that they are good inside, despite their mistakes, they will find it easier to apologize with the same empathy you have shown them.
4. Coach your child to genuinely apologize
Until your child is ready and able to independently apologize with empathy, you will have to coach them through this process. Remember to stay open-minded and non-judgmental. Follow these questions to build an empathic apology.
- What is the other person feeling?
- Why are they feeling this way? What did I do that may have caused them to feel this way?
- How can I repair it? Could I have done something differently?
Following this reflection, work with your child to put together a genuine apology that includes the four restorative components mentioned above. For a variety of reasons, your child may not be able to offer this apology. Don’t force it and model the apology yourself: “It’s hard to find your apology voice now. That happens to me sometimes too. I’ll use it for you. I’m sorry. I was frustrated and it came out as a hit. Next time, I will take a deep breath. I know you might still be upset. What can I do to make this better?”
The ability to apologize genuinely and effectively takes practice. Your child will not get it right the first, the second, or the third time; and that is just part of the learning process! Trust that one day, because of the time you invested, your child will be able to offer authentic, empathic apologies.
- Forced apologies increase shame and eliminate the opportunity for a genuine apology.
- Children need to experience empathy in order to show empathy.
- Apologizing is a difficult skill—this takes time and practice to be able to do effectively.
Be vibrant and keep thriving!
This article was last reviewed or updated on October 13, 2023.
American Psychological Association. (2022, October). Why you should apologize even when it’s hard to with Karina Schumann, PhD (No. 213). [Audio podcast episode]. In Speaking of Psychology. https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/apologize
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Good Inside. (2023). Why is it so hard to apologize? https://www.goodinside.com/article/2552/why-is-it-so-hard-to-apologize/
Pruett, L. (2021, May 18). 5 steps to teaching kids to say “I’m sorry.” PBS Kids for Parents. https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/5-steps-to-teaching-kids-to-say-im-sorry
Smith, C. (2016, September 23). Should you ask your child to apologize? The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/should_you_ask_your_children_to_apologize