Your youngest child is happily playing with her Paw Patrol rescue fire truck, complete with a very cool extendable ladder and bright flashing lights, when your eldest yanks it out of her hands. Cue the tears and you demanding that your son apologize (“Say you’re sorry!”). Sound familiar? This parenting response is so ubiquitous, you probably remember it from your own childhood. But just because it’s tried, doesn’t make it true. According to family psychologists, forcing your kid to apologize is downright ineffective. Fortunately, the child experts have some ideas for suitable alternatives that won’t leave you (and your kid) feeling discouraged and deflated.

But first, why doesn't forcing kids to apologize work?

A cursory “sorry” (especially when uttered begrudgingly) doesn’t help a child understand the situation or the behavior, let alone lead to the desired outcome—compassion and empathy. Ready for even more bad news? If your kid learns that this is what apologies look like now, then that’s exactly how he’ll handle them in the future (file under “I’m sorry you feel that way…”).

In the words of Dr. Siggie Cohen, a psychologist specializing in child development: “Want your child to apologize? What you really want is for your child to feel authentic remorse.” And they’re not going to understand this confusing (and quite complex) emotion if you just skip over it and make them repeat your words. The good news is that you can teach your child how to apologize and actually mean it.

So what should parents do instead?

Approach #1

The next time you would like your child to apologize, try this script from Dr. Siggie:

“Would you like to apologize? We apologize when we feel bad about something and we use the word ‘sorry’. This can sometimes make us and the other person feel better. Want to try?”

By using these words, you’re helping your kid understand a whole concept (i.e., why we apologize) rather than just repeat the word ‘sorry’ because mom said so. In other words, your child learns to apologize by acknowledging that they’ve done something wrong.

“You’re giving the word ‘sorry’ a meaning and the opportunity to say it by choice—not by force,” explains Dr. Siggie.

According to Dr. Siggie, you can start to introduce this concept of asking your child if they want to apologize when they’re in the older toddler/preschooler age group.

But hold on...what if your kid decides that they would not like to apologize? (Because that’s blatantly what’s going to happen, right?)

This is common, says Dr. Siggie. In that case, the parenting expert recommends saying something like: “Seems like you’re not ready, that’s OK… maybe because you’re still upset yourself. Take your time and if you feel like it, you can say sorry when you’re ready.”

Approach #2

“Let’s stop forcing our kids to apologize,” says clinical psychologist and parenting guidance provider Dr. Becky Kennedy. Instead of forcing, she advises parents to roll with their kids resistance and then model a good apology. Here's her script for doing exactly that:

It's hard to find your apology voice, huh? I'll use it for you. I'm sorry. I was so frustrated and that came out as a hit. Is there anything I can do to help?

“When a kid refuses to apologize, he's feeling shame. We have to reduce shame in order to help our child learn and change,” says Dr. Becky.

And sure, there’s the chance that your kid might not come around to apologizing to his sister for this particular infraction which definitely sucks (and can be particularly embarrassing if the offense occurs at a playdate or out in public rather than at home). But by laying the groundwork now, you’re setting your kid up for genuine apologies down the road. Hey, nobody said raising kind and well-adjusted humans was going to be easy.

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