What Parents Need To Know About Forcing Kids To Say Sorry

Apology accepted.

by Chase Scheinbaum
Originally Published: 
A little boy saying sorry to a little girl

All kids make mistakes and act in ways their parents wish they wouldn’t. When they inevitably bite another kid, ruin their sibling’s painstakingly assembled puzzle, or ask the very much not pregnant lady at the grocery store about the baby in her belly, it’s natural for parents to feel they should demand an apology. On a good day, the kid will give an apology without a fight. But whether or not they mean it is questionable. Some kids are too young to realize why they’ve hurt someone’s feelings, and can’t grasp what “I’m sorry” means. So what then? Should you make them apologize? Or does forcing their hand (or mouth) not teach them the true meaning of forgiveness?

“Sometimes kids do it just because they’re following an instruction and trying to get out of whatever just happened,” says Jamie Perillo, child psychologist and founder of Inspired Families. “But having them apologize is helpful to understanding forgiveness.” (And probably also to get other parents off your back.)

A kid’s understanding of the consequence of their actions and the process of forgiveness is constantly developing, and parents play a big role in how it evolves. Here’s how to better understand what’s going on in your kid’s little head, and how to get them to the point where they’re not just saying sorry, but meaning it, too.

Saying Sorry Only Works If They Mean It

According to Joan Durrant, a developmental psychologist and author of Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting, forcing a kid to say sorry when they don’t mean it isn’t a good idea. “If they’re not feeling it in that moment, you’re training them to lie,” Durrant says. In the long run, forcing a kid to say sorry can cause more resistance, as they learn that apologizing is something you do only when someone in power forces you to, Durrant says. Because of this, “It’s very hard for adults to apologize. They feel like they’re giving ground, they’re losing power in the situation.” Instead, kids need to learn how their actions impact others and what to do about it. In the best-case scenarios, children learn to identify harm they’ve caused and decide on their own that they need to make amends. Here’s how to kickstart that process.

Pull Them Aside

When it comes time to make your kid apologize, demanding they issue an one in front of a group of peers is not the way to go, especially if the offender isn’t sure what they did wrong.

“Saying sorry can invoke a feeling of shame, and that’s not helpful,” says Perillo. This doesn’t matter whether they’re apologizing to a child or an adult — pull them aside for the interaction. In that side convo, you can explain that, say, dumping a bucket of sand on a 3-year-old wasn’t a great look. Then, ask them how Sandy (real name unknown) may have felt getting the dirt bath? Then ask them what they want to do about inflicting that feeling.

Realize That They Might Not Understand The Harm They’ve Caused

“Children aren’t born knowing how another person feels,” Durrant says. “It’s a very long developmental process to be able to take another person’s perspective.” She gives an example of a time when her son dropped his dad’s toothbrush in the toilet. As obviously gross as that sounds to an adult, when she thought about it, Durrant realized that her son loved water, and since she’d often let him play with bowls of water, to him, the toilet was just another toy. He didn’t know about germs or plumbing, just that it was fun to make things splash.

In order to see that an apology is warranted, kids need help working through the impact of their actions. “Saying sorry is our way of saying I understand and acknowledge that,” Perillo says.

Teach Them To Understand Someone Else’s POV

Parent’s should call attention to the person who was harmed and how they’ve reacted to their child’s actions, and then bring up a time when the child may have felt similar, as a frame of reference. According to Durrant, if Sam bites Alex, Sam’s parents might say to Sam, “Do you remember when you fell off your bicycle and how much that hurt? That’s how Alex is feeling. And that’s how people feel when somebody bites them. It really, really hurts. Alex is crying because it hurts so much.“ With older kids, parents might ask them to identify the harm they’ve caused themselves. “It’s helpful for the person to state the feelings they may have caused someone to feel and know what they’re apologizing for,” Perillo says.

When someone wrongs your kid and it comes time for them to receive an apology, it helps to put that action into context. Why do they think that delinquent punched them in the nose? Was he tripping on a massive sugar high? Maybe he has behavior problems or was upset by something your child said. Those reasons don’t justify violence, but they help kids see that other people have motivations and make mistakes just like them. Teaching children to understand and accept why someone is apologizing for a mistake, makes them understand that everyone makes them. And that will make them more likely to apologize.

The Fix For A Kid Who Doesn’t Feel Sorry

Feeling sorry about stomping another person’s sandcastle requires empathy, and building empathy is a process. These exercises can help kids develop a better understanding of how their actions impact others.

If they still don’t get it, try this:

  • Have Them Write A Letter: Sit the kid down and ask them to write a short letter to the person to whom they owe an apology. Even though they don’t need to actually hand over this letter (they can keep it for themselves, or mail it to Santa) this forces them to put themselves in the other kid’s shoes. They can spell out what they did wrong, and explain how they’d like each person to move on. Amicably, most likely.
  • For Little Kids, Try A Balloon: A figurative balloon, that is. “Have them visualize a balloon with a string attached to them,” says Perillo. “The balloon contains the incident and the feelings involved.” When they fully understand what they did and how it affected someone, they can take a pair of scissors and let it go. The scissors are also figurative.

Model Good Apologies to Set an Example

Kids aren’t the only ones who say and do things they don’t mean. Seeing parents offer and accept apologies helps children learn to do it themselves. “Parents need to think about what they hope their child would do if they did something hurtful,” Durrant says. If parents want their children to acknowledge when they did something hurtful and try and fix it, they need to model that behavior.

“Apologizing helps set a boundary and show that something was not okay,” says Perillo. Durrant adds that “it shows children we respect them, care about their feelings, and that we will take responsibility for our mistakes. If we show them how to do it, and let them feel how much it matters, they will learn how to do it. “

Of course, the best apologies contain no ifs, ands, or butts that redirect blame. Acknowledge the harm you caused without qualifiers. “‘I’m sorry but . . .” doesn’t count as an apology. ‘I’m sorry but you should have . . .’ often makes things worse,” Durrant says. Time to bust out your “amends” list.

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