Wondering what to do when your child refuses to apologize? Discover positive ways to handle the situation without forcing him to say sorry.
My son 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 he was in no mood to be schooled.
Still, I knelt down to his 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!” he 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.
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Why we 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. We’re embarrassed by their problem behavior and want to show that we feel terrible about it.
Or maybe our kids truly did do something pretty bad that we absolutely would never tolerate, from hitting to using a mean name to breaking an item.
Now, I recognize there’s a difference between encouraging and guiding kids to apologize, and forcing them to. But despite all the reasons an apology would be appropriate, forcing them to say sorry—especially in the thick of their emotions—isn’t a good idea.
After my son’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 good manners. To raise polite kids who respect others, ask for things politely, and yes, apologize for mistakes. After all, when you harm 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.
Telling them to apologize before they feel remorse makes them say things that aren’t truthful for them. They’re forced to admit a feeling they don’t understand or feel sincerity about.
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2. A forced apology makes kids feel ashamed or confused
Forcing your child to apologize might also make her feel ashamed and confused about her feelings. She likely already feels guilty for what he had done, even if she doesn’t admit it right away. Forcing her to apologize can make her feel like she has lost your support, or that she’s 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 insincere apology only makes your child feel like she’s being reprimanded for who she is, not for what she did.
3. Your child doesn’t learn anything important
A forced apology slaps an immediate “resolution” to a conflict both of you could’ve learned from. You’re not able to learn, for instance, why he got frustrated in the first place. And he won’t learn how to use his words, manage his 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 his behavior (was he upset? feeling ignored? tired?), the more you can help him 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 them to want to apologize, or to at least understand its importance.
Rather than forcing them 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. He senses he 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 he’s calm before talking about or even trying to resolve the incident. Forget about saying anything logical while he’s crying—he’s not receptive when his emotions are still too high.
2. Acknowledge your child’s motives
Once your child has calmed down, talk about why he misbehaved by describing what happened. Start by showing empathy and acknowledging the triggers that may have led him to behave the way he did.
For instance, you can say, “You seemed upset when your playmate took your toy…”
Instead of starting with, “You hit her…” you’re first showing empathy for his point of view. This doesn’t mean you condone the behavior—hitting is still unacceptable. But you start the conversation by showing you understand his 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 they’ll need for when they can be more verbal.
3. Explain your expectations
Now that you’ve acknowledged your child’s motives, explain why the behavior was unacceptable and what you expect from him.
You see, just because you don’t force him 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 your child 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 him what you want him to do (say “stop,” walk away, take a breath) than do what he just did.
With older kids, you can brainstorm these ideas together to help them develop critical thinking skills. Plus, they’re more likely to follow through when they come up with their own ideas.
You’re reassuring your child that his feelings are valid, but that he 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 amends with the other person.
One simple solution? Suggest that he 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, he’s calm enough to realize he has hurt someone and even learned a few ways to better express himself. Only then can you encourage him to say sorry as a way to make the other person feel better.
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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 they can learn from.
Forcing kids to apologize isn’t genuine, and instead, can make them feel ashamed or guilty. 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 his motives for why he behaved that way, but follow it up with your expectations and rules why he can’t do that.
Offer different ways he could respond to similar situations in the future so he’s better equipped to handle it again. And finally, brainstorm a few ways he can make it up to the other person—including, of course, saying “sorry.”
p.s. Check out I’m Sorry by Michael Ian Black to help your child go through the process of apologizing:
Get more tips:
- How to Teach Conflict Resolution for Children
- How to Respond When Your Child Says Hurtful Things to You
- 9 Playground Rules You and Your Kids Should Remember
- How to Respond When Your 3 Year Old Tantrums Every Day
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