Teaching Our Kids Why and How to Apologize - Baby Chick
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Teaching Our Kids Why and How to Apologize

Teaching our children how and why to apologize is a life skill that will greatly benefit them well into their adult years. Here's how.

Updated May 7, 2024

by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist
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“Oww, that hurt! Mom, James bumped me!” When our kids don’t follow the rules or hurt someone physically or emotionally, we want them to apologize. And not just the words, because they often aren’t genuine and can be said to get parents off their backs or move past the situation quickly. We want them to say sorry, acknowledge their wrongdoing or the impact their behavior has had on someone else, and learn not to do it again.

That’s asking a lot of our little people. Giving a genuine apology is a skill they can struggle with for various reasons. They can’t yet see things from another person’s perspective (empathy). This can create a power dynamic where they feel apologizing means giving in. Also, feeling guilty about their behavior can lead to shame, which can stop them from admitting wrongdoing.

Learning to Apologize Is Important

When an apology is genuine, it shows empathy and personal responsibility, which are necessary skills for maintaining strong relationships. When children learn how to recognize their impact on another person and how this might make another person feel (empathy), they genuinely learn how to change their behavior so they don’t hurt their friends, family, and the people around them. This helps them better navigate relationships and improves the quality of these relationships as they learn to understand and consider the needs of others.

Teaching Your Child to Apologize (And Mean It!)

First, a child has to receive a genuine apology from you. As parents, we aren’t perfect, so you will have plenty of opportunities to give your child a genuine apology. When children feel the power of a genuine apology, they will better understand how to deliver one.

Giving an apology can also feel vulnerable. We don’t like to be in the wrong. It makes us feel uncomfortable or can bring up feelings of shame, which are pretty hard to accept and sit with. So, when we model this behavior, we show our children great strength and that there is nothing wrong with apologizing.

Second, remember to identify the behavior, but don’t label your child. If we want to reduce shame, which can be a real barrier to delivering an apology, we need to identify the behavior we have an issue with and be careful not to label our kids. For example, “Hitting is not acceptable” (behavior) versus “You were bad for hitting.” It’s just a small tweak but a significant one.

Structuring An Apology With These Steps

1. Say What You Did Wrong

This doesn’t have to be an admission that they did it on purpose. It also doesn’t mean that the child did it intentionally or with malice (i.e., it doesn’t mean our children are “bad”). But we still have to apologize even if it was an accident. An example might be, “I’m sorry I broke your cup.” We don’t want to focus on the child being bad. Instead, we focus on the outcome of their choices.

2. No Buts!

An apology that includes a “but” is an excuse. “I’m sorry I broke your cup, but it shouldn’t have been on the floor” isn’t a genuine apology. It’s reframing the blame and not truly accepting their part. If it was an accident, you could still encourage your child to share that, but they still need to take responsibility for the outcome.

A more genuine apology attempt might include, “It was an accident, and I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry I broke your cup. I know it is your favorite.” Imagine that you were on the receiving end of both apologies. Which one do you think helps repair or maintain a strong relationship/bond? The second one, right? A genuine apology helps reduce conflict and demonstrates empathy because the person giving the apology truly understands the impact of their behavior (even if it was an accident).

3. Offer a Solution

When apologizing, encourage your child to come up with a solution to fix things for “next time.” An apology doesn’t always need a solution, but it can help set some ground rules or ideas for the future. For example, in sibling rivalry or general sibling relationships, they are expected to share or respect their sibling’s belongings/time/boundaries, etc. With this step in the apology, the child names what they can be responsible for next time. Again, not reframing the blame.

For example, here’s the incorrect way to offer a solution: “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to break your cup. How about next time, you don’t leave it on the floor, and then I won’t accidentally kick it.” A better way to offer a solution can be something like this: “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to break your cup. Next time, I will look around before playing and see if I need to move anything out of the way.” This apology appropriately places the responsibility of consequences on the child’s actions instead of shifting the blame and corrupting the apology.

4. Ask for Forgiveness

Asking for forgiveness is an integral part of an apology. But know that it might not be given immediately. Asking for forgiveness involves some modeling for a child to learn it effectively. Understanding how to give and accept an apology with grace is essential.

In this step, the child can ask, “Do/Can you forgive me?” Sometimes, the other person can accept the apology immediately. However, we must help our children understand that the person might need some time or space before accepting an apology for bigger upsets or challenges. As a parent, you can model forgiveness by showing them that you have accepted their apology by not continuing to discuss their wrongdoing. The forgiveness and the apology both need to be genuine.

Teaching our kids the art of apologizing is crucial for their social development. Unfortunately, apologizing can be seen as a sign of weakness in our society. We must help our children learn to apologize, take personal responsibility, and genuinely develop empathy. Learning how to apologize does take practice, though. So be patient with your child, show them how to do it, and consistently support them. Remember, practice makes perfect!

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Rachel Tomlinson Registered Psychologist
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Rachel Tomlinson is a registered psychologist and internationally published author of Teaching Kids to Be Kind who has worked with adults, families, and children (birth through eighteen years old) in… Read more

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