How to help your young child learn to say “Sorry”– and mean it!

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.

Let’s face it—apologizing isn’t particularly easy for anyone!  If we’ve done something wrong, it’s hard to admit it.  We can feel like we’re “losing face” when we apologize.  And, if someone tells us we have to apologize, that often makes us dig our heels in!  We don’t like that they are pointing out our mistakes, misdeeds, or flaws. That’s already got us defensive. And we definitely don’t like that they are telling us what to do!

So, as we are helping the young child learn to apologize, let’s recognize how difficult and mature this kind of interaction really is—and, hopefully, have patience with their learning something that’s not really easy. 

Second, remember that the young child learns a LOT by watching others.  So, make sure the more mature people in the family do the hard work of apologizing—to the child or to each other– when they’ve done something wrong.  The more everyone in the family creates a safe, trusting environment for admitting their mistakes, the more people will be able to apologize.  In other words, if I know you won’t use my mistake or misdeed to hurt or punish me, I’m more likely to apologize to you when I’ve done something wrong.

And here are two more things to understand as you help your child learn this important skill:

  1. People have fundamental needs for good relationships with others and that’s what makes it possible for us to apologize. If we didn’t care about our relationship, we wouldn’t put ourselves through the trouble of apologizing!  That’s part of the reason we feel hurt when someone doesn’t apologize and we think they should.  We’re thinking “Don’t they care about our relationship??”
  2. Sincere apologies come from feelings of empathy. That’s the feeling –ouch!  I just hurt my friend’s feelings!  I feel that!  And empathy starts developing in infancy.  In fact, babies are born with brain structures called “mirror neurons” which allow a person to experience another person’s feelings.  Have you ever noticed that feelings at work or at home are contagious?  That, if one person is worried or angry, that emotion begins to affect everyone?  This capability of feeling another person’s feelings is hardwired into us—and it helps us maintain strong relationships with each other. 

So, another important way you can help your child learn (or it may be better to say help your child develop the capability) to apologize sincerely is to nurture their empathy. 

Here’s an example.  Let’s say your child says something unkind to you when he’s tired and frustrated. But he doesn’t yet have the mature capacity to say he’s sorry—and you don’t want to make it harder by trying to pressure him to do it. You can say to him “Oh, you hurt my feelings.” And let the sadness and hurt show in your face.  He will naturally feel that hurt through the mirror neuron system.

You may see your sadness mirrored on his face, and it means he is experiencing some of what you are feeling.  This is empathy—and that’s what you want to nurture.  So, let him sit with that feeling a little while, without pressing him to make it right (because that might just make him defensive).  

After a moment, he may look for a way to genuinely express contrition for hurting you and to reconnect.  He may come over to hug you, but not say “I’m sorry.”  You can help him learn this norm of saying “sorry” by saying the apology for him.  “It feels so good to have you come and hug me right now.  I think you’re sorry you hurt my feelings.” 

So, to summarize the key points about helping your young child learn to apologize sincerely when they’ve wronged someone:

  1. Understand it’s a difficult skill. 
  2. Model it– apologize when you are wrong.
  3. Teach the cultural norms for apologizing – “we say I’m sorry when we hurt someone’s feelings.”
  4. Make it safe—create a safe and trusting environment where people don’t take advantage of someone who apologizes.
  5. Normalize mistakes—be comfortable  with your own errors and your child’s errors.
  6. Allow your child to learn from their own mistakes, including cleaning up their own messes. The self-motivated desire to correct their own mistakes will help prepare them to apologize—if you don’t intervene and correct all their mistakes for them. 
  7. Nurture your child’s empathy– it is feelings of empathy and the need to maintain relationships that will lead to sincere apologies.

What is one thing that has surprised you in teaching a young child to apologize?


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