Beyond “I’m Sorry:” Teach Your Child To Apologize

Instead of forcing your child to say "I'm sorry" help them understand how to make a heartfelt apology.

You heard the smack from the kitchen. Followed by wailing.

Entering the room, you demand, “Tell your sister you’re sorry.”

“Soorrry.” It reeks with sarcasm.

“Say ‘sorry’ like you mean it,” you prompt again.

“I’m not sorry!” he yells back.

What?! How dare he say that.

Teaching your child to apologize.

You are probably all too familiar with the forced, still-angry sounding “I’m sorry” from your child.

Or maybe you hear a lot of, “Really, mom, I’m soooo sorry. I’ll never do it again, I promise!”

Apologizing is more than saying the words, “I’m sorry.” It requires heartfelt sorrow and an internal desire to make things right.

Unfortunately, we often miss the deeper work because we are so focused on hearing the words “I’m sorry.”

Rather than forcing your child to utter those two little words after they do something wrong, try these tips:

Cool Down First:  When we are in an argument, the logical part of our brain is shut down.  At that moment, we are responding with instinct, fight or flight. Before we can start using the logical part of our brain again, we need to calm down. This may take 10 minutes or 2 hours, depending on the person. Rather than demanding an apology immediately after an incident, give everyone a chance to cool down.

Address the Underlying Feelings:  Many children (and adults!) respond to situations without realizing what they were thinking, feeling or how their actions impacted the other person. Be empathetic to your child’s experience first. Listen to their perspective. Put yourself in their shoes, and use feeling words to help them connect their thoughts, feelings, and actions, “You felt angry when Sam took your truck.”

Cultivate Empathy for Others: This may be your go-to response, but don’t rush to this before you join with your child first. When you’re ready to shift the conversation to the other person’s experience, open up the conversation, rather than pointing the finger or placing blame. Stay focused on how the other person may have felt, or how they may have interpreted the other child’s actions, “I wonder if Sam felt scared when you yelled.”

Encourage Repair: Instead of hyper-focusing on the words “I’m sorry,” help your child explore ways to make things right with the other person. This may mean writing an apology letter, drawing a picture, giving a hug, doing an extra chore, or finding a band-aid. Not every child will be ready to do this right away, especially if they are still feeling angry, frustrated, ashamed, or sad. Give it time, rather than forcing it immediately.

Be a Role Model: Adults make mistakes too. It is important that you model the behavior you want to see from your children. This means apologizing when you mess up, taking responsibility and making it right. (Without blaming your child or adding, “but, if you would just…I wouldn’t have to…”). This action sends a powerful message to your children: “I respect you enough to acknowledge that I was wrong.” Wow.

So, where’s the apology?

After reading through these tips, you may be wondering about the words “I’m sorry.”

Shouldn’t kids know about the importance of those two words? Or be expected to say them at some point?

Don’t panic.

Your child knows the words “I’m sorry.” They’re familiar with the expectation.  Of course, you can still use this phrase when you’re talking with your kids.

But, remember, we’re focusing on a heart change here.

An internal desire to take responsibility for their actions and make things right again. Not a rote repetition of two words.

If a child responds with a hug and offers to rebuild a damaged block tower, that’s “I’m sorry.”

If a child responds with a note explaining how they felt and how much they love you, that’s “I’m sorry.”

Look beyond the words.

Look at the heart.

Nicole Schwarz (couch 3)

Welcome! I'm Nicole Schwarz.

I'm a Parent Coach, Licensed Therapist and Author of It Starts with You. I help stressed, overwhelmed, confused parents find calm, confidence and connection with their kids. No one is expecting perfection here. But, if you’re willing to examine your parenting, find encouragement, or try something new, this is the place for you.

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