Child won't say sorry? Don't use force, try this instead
This is one of the hardest things parents have to deal with – and here at Mellownest we get asked about this a lot!
Picture the scene – you’re in the playground or at soft play, your child is playing happily with another child when suddenly you see them reach out and smack the other child on the head. Right in front of that child’s parent (cue major cringing and you suddenly feeling extremely hot and wanting to die from embarrassment!)
You: “You need to say sorry now”
Your child: (staring at you blankly – frankly because they usually have no idea why you’re asking them to do that)
You: (in an even firmer voice) “I said say sorry”
Your child: (either continues to stare, starts to cry themselves or does that over-the-top, completely and utterly insincere “I’M SO-RRY”… #sorrynotsorry anyone?!)
The only thing that is really achieved in this situation is a transfer of some of the embarrassment that you were feeling onto your child, you both end up feeling pretty rubbish – and the other child is still feeling hurt.
When you force your child to say sorry after an incident and leave it at that, you’re just teaching them that if you say the word then that’s all you need to do. It might sound a bit extreme but you’re essentially teaching them to lie by getting them to say something they don’t mean.
NOTE: It’s not only children that this happens to. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve done or said something to someone else that you shouldn’t have done or said but not felt able to apologise? That’s because you weren’t sorry. And if you had have said it at that point then it wouldn’t have been genuine. Which to me is far worse – I’d rather not receive an apology at all rather than receive an insincere one.
Why do children find this hard?
The reason for this is that young children have an underdeveloped Theory of Mind – the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to empathise.
Theory of Mind is said to start developing at around the age of 4 or 5, but this doesn’t mean that you should let things slide, that you shouldn’t intervene in a situation where your child hurts someone or otherwise does something wrong. Of course, you want to work on developing empathy, because it’s only when we are able to empathise with others that we are able to say sorry and genuinely mean it.
Think about what you want your child to think or understand when they say they’re sorry. If they have hurt another child, you want them to be sorry because that child is in pain. If they have broken something that belongs to you, you want them to be sorry because you no longer have that item.
So, what could you do?
Here are some ways you can encourage your child to feel remorseful (and help them to eventually realise the value of ‘sorry’):
The most obvious in my book: You need to apologise to them when you hurt them or do something wrong! Even if it was accidental or as the result of a misunderstanding, if you anger or upset your child you need to apologise to them. Saying sorry is a good place to start, but showing them you’re sorry would be even more effective. Which leads on to the next idea….
Offer opportunities to repair
When your child does something wrong by someone else, work out with them how they can make it better. This doesn’t have to be by saying the word sorry, but could instead be by making a card, doing something helpful or doing something kind (e.g. making a drink for a sibling). As long as they know why they’re doing it (and as long as this isn’t enforced by you) then the end result is the same.
And it may even achieve more than just a plain old sorry - after all, actions speak louder than words.
Say sorry yourself
Where your child has hurt another child, the best thing you can do in this situation is apologise on their behalf, to the other child and their parent. The reason this is way more effective is because you will genuinely mean it! It will also serve to reduce that awful feeling of embarrassment you felt when it happened. And of course, it's a perfect way of modelling; showing your child what they could do in these situations.
For an older, school-age child, you might want to try the following too:
Wait! As tempted as you might be to jump in and direct them to apologise, just hang back for a moment to see what they do of their own volition – they may just surprise you.
(And if you still get nothing, go back to number 2).