Wondering what to do when your child refuses to apologize? Discover a positive way to handle the situation without forcing her to say sorry.
My toddler wasn’t in the best of moods. It was one of those, “Let me whine about the littlest things” days.
He and his dad were rough housing when he hit his dad with a plastic toy. Right away the air changed from giddiness to tension, and my son was in no mood to be schooled.
Still, I knelt down to my toddler’s eye level and said, “We don’t hit other people.” Okay, so far so good. “Daddy got sad and hurt when you hit him,” I continued. When he continued to throw a fit, I ordered, “Say ‘I’m sorry’.”
“I’m sorry,” my toddler replied between tears.
I doubt he even knew what “sorry” meant, because clearly he wasn’t. A few minutes later he ran after his dad and smacked him again with his hand.
Insert a few parenting mishaps here and toddler crying there, and you get an idea of how the rest of the evening went.
Why you shouldn’t force kids to apologize
As parents, we’re driven to force our kids to apologize when they do something wrong. We want to use the situation as a teachable moment to learn right from wrong. Maybe we’re embarrassed by their behavior and want to show that we feel terribly about it.
Or maybe our kids truly did do something pretty bad that we absolutely would never tolerate, from hitting to calling names to breaking a toy.
Now, I recognize there’s a difference between encouraging kids to apologize and guiding them through that process, and forcing them to. But despite all the reasons an apology would be appropriate, forcing kids to say sorry—especially in the thick of their emotions—simply isn’t a good idea.
After my toddler’s fit, my husband and I talked about what happened and what we could’ve done instead. We agreed that forcing him to say “I’m sorry” was a bad idea. Here’s why:
1. A forced apology isn’t genuine
We sometimes force kids to say “sorry” to teach manners. To raise polite kids who respects others, asks for things politely, and yes, apologizes for mistakes. After all, when you hurt someone, you express your grief at having done so by saying sorry.
Except saying sorry only works when you mean it. And when you know what it even means.
Sure, sometimes we feel compelled to tell our kids to apologize depending on severity. Playing with the curtains or flinging food on the floor don’t warrant stern discipline, but something like hitting your dad probably does.
But telling kids to apologize before they feel remorse makes them say things that aren’t truthful for them, forcing them to admit a feeling they don’t agree with or understand.
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2. A forced apology makes your child feel ashamed or confused
Forcing your child to apologize might also make him feel ashamed and confused about his feelings. He likely already feels guilty for what he had done, even if he doesn’t admit it right away. Forcing him to apologize can make him feel like he has lost your support, or that he is a bad person.
You see, it’s easy for kids to tie their behavior to their self-worth. They don’t always know that it’s not about being a bad person as it is a person who did a bad thing. Forcing an apology only makes him feel like he is being reprimanded for who he is, not for what he did.
3. Your child doesn’t learn anything important
A forced apology slaps an immediate “resolution” to a conflict both of you could learn from instead. You’re not able to learn, for instance, why she got frustrated in the first place. And she won’t learn how to use her words, manage her emotions, or handle social conflict.
In other words, both of you miss out on a teachable moment.
The more you can both identify the triggers to her behavior (was she upset? feeling ignored? tired?), the more you can help her find alternatives (like saying “I’m mad!”).
What to do when your child refuses to apologize
Even though we shouldn’t force kids to say sorry, we can certainly use this opportunity as a teachable moment. One that will guide her to want to apologize, or to at least understand its importance.
Rather than forcing her to apologize, encourage and teach genuine ways to do so. Here’s how:
1. Wait for the right moment
As tempting as it is to resolve the problem, talking about the importance of saying “sorry” (much less forcing it) is best left for later.
You see, your child is likely still in a heightened emotional state. She senses she did something wrong, but is too emotional to process much of anything you’re trying to teach.
Briefly explain your expectations (“We don’t hit”) but wait until she’s calm before talking about or even trying to resolve the incident. Forget about saying anything logical while she’s crying or hysterical—she’s simply not receptive to understand when her emotions are still too high.
2. Acknowledge his motives
Once your child has calmed down, talk about why she misbehaved by describing what happened. Start by showing empathy and acknowledging the triggers that may have led her to behave the way she did.
For instance, you can say, “You seemed upset when she took your toy…”
Instead of starting with, “You hit her…” you’re first showing empathy for her point of view. This doesn’t mean you condone the behavior—hitting is still unacceptable—but you start the conversation by showing you understand her motives.
With younger kids, you’ll need to fill in and guess most of their emotions. But even doing this exercise will provide the words he’ll need for when she can be more verbal.
3. Explain your expectations
Now that you’ve acknowledged her motives, you can then explain why the behavior was unacceptable and, more important, what you expect from her.
You see, just because you don’t force her to apologize doesn’t mean you allow the behavior to continue. Instead, you use these calm moments to explain your expectations, values, and rules. You might say, “I know you felt mad—I would, too—but hitting hurts. We don’t do that.”
4. Offer alternative ways to respond
Once she feels heard and understands your expectations, you can then offer different ways to handle it next time.
With younger kids, you can simply make suggestions. You might say, “The next time she takes a toy or you feel upset, you can tell her, ‘Stop’.” This is your chance to teach her what you’d rather she do (say “stop,” walk away, take a breath) than do what she just did.
With older kids, you can even brainstorm these ideas together to help her develop critical thinking skills so she can do this independently. Plus, she’s more likely to follow through when she comes up with her own ideas.
You’re reassuring her that her feelings are valid, but that she needs to find a better way to respond in the future.
5. Brainstorm ways to make the other person feel better
Once your child understands what to do the next time, you can both come up with a solution on how to make it up to the other person.
One simple solution? Suggest that she apologize.
For instance, you can say, “I don’t think he felt good when you hit him. Why don’t you give him a hug and say ‘sorry’ so he can feel better.”
At this point, your child is calm enough to realize she has hurt someone and even learned a few ways to better express herself. Only then can you encourage her to say sorry as a way to make the other person feel better.
Rest assured friend, not forcing my kids to say “sorry” is still something I’m working on. But I’m learning that doing so can backfire and not take advantage of the teachable moment my kids can learn from.
Forcing kids to apologize isn’t genuine, and instead, can make them feel ashamed or guilty. And of course, they can’t learn anything constructive from the scenario, such as how to process their emotions or choose better choices.
Instead of forcing an apology, encourage it instead. Start by waiting for the right time to talk about it, not when your child is throwing a fit. Acknowledge her motives for why she behaved that way, but follow it up with your expectations and rules why she can’t do that.
Offer different ways she could respond to similar situations in the future, so she’s better equipped to handle it again. And finally, brainstorm a few ways she can make it up to the other person, including, of course, saying “sorry.”
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Siblings from Fighting and Teach Conflict Resolution Instead
- How to Respond to Your Child’s Hurtful Words
- 9 Playground Rules You and Your Kids Should Remember
- Why Kids Shouldn’t Be Forced to Share
- How to Respond When Your 3 Year Old Tantrums Every Day
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