Learning to Say "I'm Sorry"

Taking the blame can be tough for kids of all ages. Here's how to teach your child to say "I'm sorry."

When Eleanor Patrick, 6, refused to apologize for hurting her older sister, Claire, her mom, Bethanne, sent her to her room and told her not to come out until she could apologize. "Not only was she unrepentant, but she sat on her bed and wailed that everyone was being mean to her," says Patrick, of Arlington, Virginia. "An hour later, she finally muttered 'I'm sorry' in Claire's general direction, and life went on."

Kids aren't always sorry for the things we think are worth an apology. And even when they are, many have a hard time uttering those two little words. Some kids may actually blurt out "I'm sorry" too easily—and consider it a quick way to satisfy adults and get back to play. Teaching a child when to apologize and how to make amends for hurting someone—whether it was with a playground shove or a broken promise—is a gradual process. But when a child knows how to say he's sorry, he gains more than a social skill. He also learns how to undo his mistakes, take responsibility for his actions, and consider others' feelings. Here's a guide to teaching the fine art of the apology.

Lessons for Little Kids

Before a child can apologize, she has to realize she's done something wrong—a concept preschoolers and even 5-year-olds don't always grasp. "Preschoolers are still in the 'me' phase, so they're not considering what's right or wrong," says Sherry Siman Maliken, a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program, in Kensington, Maryland. That's why parents and teachers often need to step in and point out when an apology is in order. With kids 2 and under, just focus on enforcing the rules—by learning them, your child will have less to apologize for later—and don't worry about coaxing a "Sorry."

However, 3- to 5-year-olds need to understand why it's important to say they're sorry, says Parents adviser Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! Keep your explanation simple: "We say sorry when we do something that hurts or bothers someone." Since kids this age aren't yet able to mentally put themselves in another's place, help encourage empathy by pointing out how the other child feels ("Sara is crying. How do you think she feels? How'd you feel if your picture had been ruined?").

Giving your child a concrete way to make amends is an important part of any apology. Laurie Galdes, of Campbell, California, finds this makes more of an impact on her 4-year-old son, Andrew, than simply saying sorry. "I have him share a toy if he's just grabbed one or ask his friend if he's okay if he's just pushed him," she says.

Don't get so wrapped up in the apology lesson, though, that you forget to deal with the original misbehavior. "Apologies don't mean much if the behavior doesn't change," points out Maliken. So restate the rules and enforce any consequences ("We don't use bad words in this family. If you want to use bad words like that, please go stand in the bathroom").

Older and Wiser

By age 6, kids have a better sense of right and wrong and a growing capacity to understand how others feel. But that doesn't mean apologies are any easier. While kids usually realize when they've goofed, they're increasingly concerned about what others think of them and may be reluctant to draw attention to themselves by owning up to their mistakes, Dr. Severe says.

Older kids may have bigger issues to apologize for, but they also have more ways to remedy their mistakes. If a child breaks a window playing baseball, he can earn money to replace it, as well as promise to play somewhere else. Relationships with friends are more important now, and kids may be more eager to heal rifts. On the other hand, they're also craftier about covering up their misbehavior. Reacting calmly and positively when your child fesses up will encourage him to be honest ("I don't like hearing that you took money from my purse, but it took courage for you to tell me and I appreciate that").

How to Help

Apologies are tough at any age. Some kids refuse to admit guilt ("I'm not sorry, so why should I apologize?"), or they may be scared, embarrassed, or shy about actually apologizing. Here are some options for kids who balk.

  • Stay neutral. If kids have a conflict, it can be hard to know who's owed an apology. When you hear "He did it!" and "She started it!" explain to both children that they don't have to be at fault in order to apologize. Each child can say, "I'm sorry that happened." This helps kids calm down, repair hurt feelings, and move on.
  • Do it together. Tell your child that you know it's hard to apologize, and offer to help. "If he's little, you can even pick him up and say, 'Come on, I'll say it with you,' " suggests Dr. Severe. Some kids need time to cool down, so it's okay to give them some breathing room ("Tomorrow, when we go to school, you need to apologize to Charlie. I'd be happy to help you"). It's easier for some young kids to convey their apology by drawing a picture or dictating a note. A kind gesture, like bringing a flower or giving the injured party a hug, serves the same purpose.
  • Don't insist. Encourage but don't force your child to say he's sorry. That can make the situation worse and even more embarrassing, and no one will feel good about an apology under those circumstances. If your child snarls "I'm sorry!" just to end a standoff, it'll be a meaningless apology that doesn't teach him anything.
  • Keep your own anger in check. Instead of saying, "Apologize right now or you're going to be in trouble!" try "When you find a way to make your friend feel better, you can play with her again."
  • Take the lead. If your child is too upset or simply unwilling to say he's sorry, you can apologize for him. "You'll set a good example and help ease the other child's hurt feelings. Then deal with your child later," Dr. Severe recommends. You can tell the other child, "I'm so sorry this happened. Danny and I will be talking about it at home."
  • Beware if it's too easy. Sometimes kids try to use "I'm sorry" as a free ticket out of trouble. They toss it off as soon as they sense they've done something wrong, and expect everything to be fine. They may be puzzled that you're still upset ("I said I was sorry!") and might repeat the offending behavior before too long. "When this happens, it means the child hasn't learned more than the words," says Dr. Severe. Point out that an apology helps, but only if he's sincere about doing things differently next time.

Saying Sorry To A Child

When you say you're sorry to your child, it shows her that apologies aren't just for kids. "There have been many times when I've been a less-than-perfect mom and have apologized to my 10-year-old daughter, Laura," says Cindy Hofen, of Mountain View, California. Telling her daughter she's sorry not only makes them both feel better, but it strengthens their relationship and makes it easier for Laura to talk about her own feelings and regrets.

When you make your apology, tell your child specifically what you're sorry for and don't overwhelm her with excuses and explanations. If you find yourself apologizing for the same thing over and over (losing your temper, for example), remember that the situation is the same with adults as with kids: Apologies are meaningless unless you change the offending behavior.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the September 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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