Oct. 25, 2021

Ask Amy- My Kid Is Not Great At Apologizing

Kids sometimes view saying “sorry” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. I said the magic word, Mom, why are you still mad? But sorry is only the first step in a proper apology. When we help kids get why their actions were hurtful, they can then address the hurt they caused by taking proactive measures.


How do we get kids to view saying "sorry" as more than a get-out-of-jail-free card? This week's question comes from our Facebook page:

I have 5-year-old and 2-year-old boys. My question: how do you help kids around 5 years old understand the meaning of "sorry"? My son will do something wrong– and know it’s wrong before he does it– then immediately say he’s sorry. I try to give him a punishment to help him understand what he did was wrong, but he will still do the action again, then say, “well, I said I was sorry." How do I help him understand the meaning of being sorry so he won’t do the action again?

Not all kids are great at apologies. And grownups sometimes go at this the wrong way too, overemphasizing a perfunctory, mumbled "sorry" from the wrongdoer and then moving on. "That's where the conversation ends," writer Rachael Rifkin says in Today's Parents, "with little if any discussion of what happened, why it was hurtful to the person they’re apologizing to, how they can address the hurt they caused, and what they can do to change their behavior."

Those discussions can't always happen in the moment, while the little brother is still crying and the big brother is probably disregulated as well. Child specialist Ellen Goldsmith says it's always unwise to try to teach our kids when either they're in "red brain," when we're angry ourselves, or when our kids will be embarrassed in front of others. But that doesn't mean the wrongdoer gets off the hook. In the moment, tend to the one who has been wronged. Later that day, go back and talk about it. If the kid says "I said I was sorry," ask them (with genuine curiosity) why they did what they did. Ask them how they think the other person felt. Then ask them what they think they should do next.

When it comes to apologies, elementary school teacher JoEllen Poon has a great 3-step approach that hits all the key points. Help your child complete these three sentences:

1)I’m sorry for...

2)this is wrong because...

3) in the future I will...

A 5-year-old will need some help with this at first, of course. But keep at it and he'll start to really understand what Daniel Tiger said best: saying "sorry" is only the first step.

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