"Apologize to me for talking that way!" The words flew out of my mouth, setting me up for an epic battle of wills. When my 6-year-old daughter finally mumbled an apology through her tears, I wondered if all the drama had been worth it. Had she learned anything by being pushed to say "I'm sorry"? Experts explain what's important is not simply saying the words but learning to take responsibility for a mistake. "Children this age may resist apologizing because they believe the mistake wasn't their fault," says Ericka Anderson, a licensed professional counselor at The Healing Grove, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. "They need reassurance that even though they misbehaved, they are not 'bad' and are still loved." By breaking the apology process into a few steps you can help your child understand how her actions affect others and learn when to make amends.
Take A Step Back
Your child is having a disagreement with a friend and pushes him in the heat of the moment. Rather than rushing in and demanding an apology, help your child calm down first. "If you insist that he say he's sorry when he's still upset, he won't understand how his behavior affects others," says Jennifer Kirk, Psy.D., a psychologist at Kirk Neurobehavioral Health, in Louisville, Colorado. As he learns to have empathy, he will start to feel and appreciate the pain his actions can cause others. This can trigger remorse, which will help him better handle conflicts in the future. If your child's anger is directed at you—he yells when you ask him to set the table—responding with "We don't talk that way; apologize right now" will only escalate the situation and make him feel bad about being scolded rather than about being rude to you. "Say something like, 'That hurts my feelings. I love you, but let's take a few minutes apart and come back later,' " Dr. Kirk advises.
Review What Happened
Once she calms down, you can talk about how her behavior affects others. "Ask questions that help her see how the other person felt, such as, 'How would you feel if that happened to you?' " Dr. Kirk suggests. You might also help her recall a time when she was in a similar situation. "Remember how sad you were when Stella yelled at you? That might be how Chloé feels now." Then you can work together to brainstorm better ways to solve the conflict. "Ask your child, 'What could you have done differently?' or 'What would work better next time?' to help her think through what happened," Dr. Kirk recommends. If your child was upset with her brother for not sharing and threw his toy across the room, remind her that next time she could leave the room or say, "Please don't do that."
Lead By Example
One of the most powerful teaching tools you have is your own behavior. "Your child is watching what you do," says Dr. Kirk. If you snapped at your son when he interrupted a conversation, you might say, "I'm sorry I didn't respond in a nicer way. In the future, I'll take a deep breath to calm down when I'm feeling frustrated." This apology models the steps you are trying to teach him: taking responsibility and developing a plan for next time. As he sees this process in action again and again, he will internalize the words and the meaning behind them.
Concrete actions give apologies more significance for kids this age. If your child calls her friend a mean name, you could ask, "What can you do to make her feel better?" She might suggest drawing a picture, giving a hug, or offering to share a special toy. Like saying "I'm sorry," these gestures help a child learn to be responsible for correcting her own mistakes. Of course, she might still refuse to apologize even if you've guided her toward an appropriate response. At this point, you may decide to avoid a power struggle, knowing that another opportunity to apologize will come along. But if you do ask her to say she's sorry, praise her afterward by saying, "You should feel proud for making your friend feel better!"