Ellie was a high-energy 5-year-old who was acting out. She kicked her friends, ignored directions and dumped out the toys during cleanup time. Her parents were frustrated and embarrassed. One day, she was rude to her babysitter, and her parents insisted she say sorry. Instead of complying, she hung her head, clammed up and refused to say a word. Her dad sternly repeated that she had to say sorry and warned her that she would have no screen time or dessert that evening. Ellie fell apart and started to cry. Her parents came to our office for parenting support, wondering where they had gone wrong. Shouldn’t they teach her to apologize for her actions?
Not necessarily. Forcing a child to say she’s sorry is rarely constructive. For one, it’s just a word and it’s meaningless unless we take the time to understand what’s underneath. Some kids learn to just say it quickly, because they know it gets them out of trouble—but it doesn’t connect the dots between their actions, the pain it caused or the development of empathy.
Forcing a “sorry” closes the conversation and cuts off learning. It shames the child and, depending on her personality, might elicit resistance and the tendency to fight back or stubbornly shut down.
Forcing a 'sorry' closes the conversation and cuts off learning.
What’s a more meaningful response? It’s one that keeps communication open and prompts kids to pause, think and connect what they did to their own internal state, and figure out a better way. If it sounds like a tall order, it’s not, because it happens slowly and surely over time. Instead of forcing a "sorry," prompt your child to take a second to reflect on what she was trying to say, or to check in with her friend in a more meaningful way.
For example, as the parent, you might say, "Were you trying to tell her something? Say it with words, not your feet."
"That looked like it hurt. Let’s check in with your friend."
"Come with me to get an ice pack for your friend."
Over time, kids become good at making their own meaningful “apologies” to their friends, like:
"I wasn’t looking where I was going. Are you OK?"
"I drew you a picture to help you feel better."
"Can I get you some ice?"
In Ellie’s case, her parents almost immediately had more empathy for their daughter when they thought more deeply about her behavior. It turned out that the couple was arguing a lot, and they were even contemplating separation. Their dynamic in the home was tense and distant. Ellie must have felt out of balance, confused and probably scared.
Instead of immediately correcting her behavior, her parents started acknowledging those underlying feelings. The feelings had to come out somehow, and the kicking and dumping toys were the only things she knew to do. Mom and Dad gave her an age-appropriate explanation of what was going on between them at home. They stopped forcing her to say “sorry.”
A few weeks later, they came to a session excited to tell us a story. Earlier that week, Ellie had been resistant to come to the table for dinner. She ran up to the table, picked up her plate and dumped the food onto the floor. She started to cry. Mom took a deep breath and said, “You look pretty sad right now. I know you’re having a hard time. Since you know it’s not OK to dump food on the floor, let’s think about how you can do a check-in.”
Ellie continued to cry. Dad crouched down and hugged her and held her until she was calm. Finally, she looked at the food on the floor and said, “I’ll help clean it up.”
Dad said, “And I will help you.”
(Julie Wright, MFT, and Heather Turgeon, MFT, are the authors of the new book "Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma" (TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House), as well as the popular sleep book "The Happy Sleeper." Based in New York City and Los Angeles, they frequently speak and offer parenting consultations to families on communication, setting limits with empathy, sleep and more.)