Apologizing. That has to be one of the toughest relationship skills to learn. Even though just a little bit of time with Google will show article after article talking about how beneficial it is to receive an apology, sometimes, they can be so hard to offer, right? Given the physical and mental benefits, and their ability to heal relationships, we have enough reasons to offer up apologies when we’ve wronged someone, but as parents we have one more: it’s our job to model things like apologizing to our kids. Apologizing is a life skill! As adults, we believe that we acknowledge that our behavior caused harm and that we accept responsibility for doing wrong through apologizing. It makes total sense, then, that we want to teach our children to apologize to others when they’ve hurt them.
So, how do you help your children learn to apologize well? The first step is something that’s generally true for us grown-ups, too: let your child walk away and take a little time to cool down and collect themselves before apologizing. Even taking a minute or two after a stolen-toy incident on the playground will allow for a teachable moment that wouldn’t happen if you tried to force a wailing child to apologize to another wailing child right after the toy was taken. Once those high emotions are a little bit more in control, here are some steps to helping your child offer a genuine (not forced) apology.
Talk about feelings: Ask your child what they were feeling when they engaged in the hurtful behavior. Reassure your child that having their emotions is perfectly okay. Then ask how they think their behavior made the other person feel. One possible way to do this is to ask your child how they felt in a similar situation. You can also take time to talk about how they can deal with these feelings when they have them again. This begins the process of helping children accept responsibility for their actions.
Talk about what they can do to make it right: Very young children are content to receive a prompted apology (check out the article I linked to above), but by the time kids are elementary school, they’re looking for spontaneous apologies, which seem more sincere. Also, offers to repair the harm done went farther to repair the relationship. You can help children learn to do this by asking questions like,
- Your [sister] is [mad]. How can we help [her]?
- Can you use your words, or would you like to show [your friend] you feel sorry?
- What can you do to make it right?
- What would you do differently if you could have a do-over?
A good apology: We all know there’s a difference between a good apology and a bad one. The bad ones say things like, “I’m sorry if you were upset,” or “I’m sorry if you were offended by something that I said.” Those are the ones where the person apologizing doesn’t take any ownership of their harmful behavior. A good apology identifies the harm that was done, it shows genuine remorse, and it attempts to repair the harm. For example: “I’m sorry that I ripped your homework in half. That was wrong because you worked really hard on it and ruining it made you upset. I can help you tape it back together.”
Role-play: This is a great tool, especially for older kids, who you’re not likely to see in the moment when something goes wrong. Work with them to role-play their apology, what they’ll say, and what they plan to do to make it right. This will also help them build skills to better handle their emotions in the future.
And remember to model this behavior with other adults in your life, and when you apologize to your kids. Come on, we all know we have to do it from time to time. Seeing you do it reinforces to them the importance of a good apology. And everyone feels better after giving and receiving one.