How to: Say sorry

Simple words, yet such a big concept for our little people to understand. Dr Melanie Woodfield offers five tips to help teach children the art of apologising.

He pushed her over, but doesn’t even care!”, “Why won’t she just say sorry?!”, “Sometimes I worry that he’s really insensitive –he doesn’t seem to show any remorse when he hurts people.”

In the clinic setting, I often get referrals for children who show “no remorse”. Humans are wired to bat an eyelid when we hurt someone, and if a child doesn’t, parents are understandably bothered. But the lack of remorse issue usually raises a few questions for me. I’m guessing that the child, having done something aggressive or hurtful, is asked ten questions in rapid succession (“Are you sorry for what you did?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Why won’t you give it back?”, “What are you going to do about it?”). The child’s replies were probably something like “no… don’t know… just because… nothing”, followed by a good old door slam or kick to his little sister.

Now this, to me, is not a lack of remorse. This is a child who probably knows what they did was not okay.

They’re overwhelmed with strong emotions like anger, guilt, fear or plain old confusion. In that space, at that time, it’s not easy to be rational and sensible and make things right. It can also be really hard to say sorry when you’re embarrassed or ashamed. Most children, most of the time, have a flash of remorse or guilt after they’ve hurt another human, even if they don’t say the words “I’m sorry”. While they can be sorry, even if they don’t say so, there’s something about a mumbled apology that makes everyone feel better. In fact, most people wait for an apology from a child when they’ve snatched, whacked or pillaged. Apologies are social expectations, and in many situations, it’s unacceptable not to apologise. So how do you teach your wee one to express their regret verbally and, ideally, sound like they mean it?

1  No need to apologise
First, figure out whether an apology is really necessary, and if so – who it needs to be directed at. The other day I rounded the corner of our house to see my five-year-old son in the process of lobbing rotten lemons over the fence to the neighbours’ house. His blank look and explanation of “but they were just the yucky lemons” suggested that insisting he apologise to me or the neighbour wasn’t really the most useful way forward. Instead, an explanation as to why this wasn’t ideal, and his offer to nip round the side of the fence to pick them up, sorted things out.

2  Say it like you mean it
Nothing like a butter-wouldn’t-melt cherub calling out a sing-sing “oopsy” while walking over the broken or spilled thing and continuing to play. Children quickly learn that saying the word will often get them out of the clean-up. This may call for a “hey, there’s milk on the floor and my favourite bowl is broken. I see it was an accident, but I need you to help with some ideas of what we can do now”. Children are remarkably astute when it comes to problem-solving. Maybe instead of insisting “say sorry”, you could try:
●  A statement or observation of the facts. “The milk bottle lid came off, and there’s milk on the floor.” Then…. SILENCE! Wait to see how your child responds.
●  A clue or hint. “That painting was really important to him.”
●  A suggestion. “Sophie looks sad. Maybe you could ask if she wants a hug, or maybe you’ve got another idea.”
●  A choice. “Shall we clean up the milk with the paper towels or the cloth?”

3  Model apologies
One of the most effective ways to teach your child anything is to model it yourself – kids do what you do, not what you say. There are a couple of things to consider, though —please don’t apologise for “being a bad mum” or “never being good enough”. Take care to promote the fact that your worth is not in question, it’s your reaction in the moment that you regret. Also, take responsibility for your own actions, and don't blame the other person. “I’m sorry for getting angry, but you didn’t listen to me” is less helpful – in fact, steer clear of most sentences involving “but you…”.

Start by outlining the facts. Let kids know that you understand their feelings. Let them know that the feeling is fine, but what they did wasn’t okay. You could say something like “I got angry and shouted at you when you ran away, and it’s not okay that I shouted. I’m guessing you ran away because you were having fun and didn’t want to leave the pool. But it’s not okay to run away”.

Another reason apologising to your children is important is that it provides an opportunity to teach that all feelings are okay. Every feeling has a purpose, and makes sense given the thoughts running through your mind at the time. Even anger is fine. It tells you that this thing matters and something needs to be done. The problem comes when anger brings with it aggression or violence. This is an important message and a careful apology can be effective in teaching it – try “I felt really angry when you ripped up your brother's drawing, but it’s not okay that I shouted at you. I was angry because I knew how important that drawing was to him”.

4  Match expectations to development
Keep in mind that some ‘sorry’ situations require an insight into what the other person is feeling – very young children lack this ability. They believe that what they are thinking is what everyone else is thinking. For a toddler, snatching a toy feels good, and gets them a toy. Toddlers usually don’t feel bad about that; certainly not sorry. By around three to four years old, something called Theory of Mind develops, when kids begin to appreciate that while they’re feeling pleased they got the toy, the other child is feeling sad they don’t have the toy. It’s still a good idea to teach and role model saying sorry, but tailor your expectations according to what’s developmentally fair for your child.

5  Pick your moment
The time for debriefs and sensible conversation is after the waves of emotion have passed. Practise saying sorry with the little things, and it will come more readily with the big things.

The aim is for your child to have an awareness that something needs to be fixed or repaired, whether it’s an object or a relationship, and that their reactions affect others. Don’t panic if this awareness is patchy or seems slow in coming. Keep consistent, stay true to your parenting values, and watch their awareness grow.


Dr Melanie Woodfield (DClinPsy, BSc(hons), MNZCCP) is a clinical psychologist living in Auckland who works for a child and adolescent mental health service. The apologies her two young children utter are at times useful and thoughtful, but have also memorably included “I’m sorry that you are a slowcoacher buttcrack”.


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