What parents need to know about forced apologies.

All children make mistakes and do things we wish they wouldn’t. Often the child does not realize they have done something wrong.  If they know it and apologize, they may not even know what it truly means, but we feel better when they say, “I’m sorry.”  When they don’t volunteer the words, then what?

A child’s understanding of the consequence of their actions and the process of forgiveness is constantly developing, and parents play a big role in how it evolves. Here’s how to better understand what’s going on in your child’s head, and how to get them to the point where they’re not just saying sorry, but meaning it, too.

Three-year-old Jane and her two-year-old sister Claire are in the family room playing with dolls. Suddenly, there are high-pitched screams and the words, “it’s mine! It’s mine!” Mom rushes in to discover Jane and Claire engaged in a tug-of-war with one of the dolls. Jane, the older and larger child of the two, pulls the doll out of Claire’s grasp. Claire begins to cry and Jane turns her attention to the doll. Jennifer kneels down to see if Claire is hurt and then says to Jane, “stop fighting with your sister, she’s smaller than you. You are the big girl and should know better than to take Claire’s toys. Now, say you’re sorry!” Jane mumbles “sorry,” Claire stops crying when she gets the doll she wanted and Jane picks up another doll.

Early childhood experts suggest that forcing a child to offer an apology when she does not feel sorry is not a truly useful strategy and it can have some negative, if unintended, consequences. For one thing, it can result in confusion about her feelings and sense of self.

Telling her to repeat your words about her feelings teaches her to distrust her own feelings and that it is okay to lie about her feelings. It also can encourage a child to think that speaking a few words can help her wriggle out of a difficult situation and that she does not need to examine her own behavior.

Just mouthing words does not address the real issue of showing disrespect for another person. It will not lead to a change in her behavior in the future, and that is what we are truly seeking.

To encourage pro-social behavior that does not lead to negative consequences, parents can try these strategies suggested by child development experts:

  • Give information about the other person that the child is not able to process on their own yet. This may appeal to a child’s growing sense of empathy, and they may willingly show regret for the argument. You can then encourage the empathetic child to express her sincere feelings of regret to their playmate.
  • Offer other items of the same type for one or both children to choose.
  • Redirect play to another area, such as the kitchen, blocks or books.
  • Try to avoid having one child in the role of the victim and the other in the role of the “bad” child. Consistently being in the role of victim is just as damaging as the bully role.
  • Work with children to help them to learn problems solving skills and cooperation.
  • Look for teachable moments when your child is not the one in the situation, but you can observe and talk about a situation involving other children, at the park or during a children’s group.

Here is the same scenario with a new, more positive ending.

Jennifer gently takes the contested doll into her own custody. Then, she asks what happened and listens to what the girls tell her. Because the children are so young, she suggests a solution that is fair to both, such as offering other dolls to the children. Jennifer might also attempt to appeal to Jane’s growing sense of empathy and justice by letting her know that Claire is young and still thinks everything is for her but will probably lose interest in a minute. Mom explains “It hurt Claire’s feelings when you tried to pull the doll away. She’s crying.” If Jane expresses, on her own, regret for pushing Claire, then mom can encourage Jane to tell Claire how she feels. This time, the “I’m sorry” is authentic. Jane has been true to herself and learned a lesson about positive emotional growth.

There is no question the need to teach children to apologize; however, forced apologies have little positive effect. Forcing a child to apologize may teach your child a memorized response and make you feel better, but it does not teach your child to accept responsibilities for his/her actions or to begin to understand another’s feelings.


It isn’t easy teaching children to apologize with sincerity and empathy, but your efforts will help your child to understand the meaning of their feelings and how to deal with others, our end goal for young children.

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