Notice I titled this article How to Get Your Child to Apologize, not How to Teach Your Child to Apologize. Your child already knows how.
By the time children are two, they are capable of empathy. If another child cries, they feel it. If mommy hurts herself, they offer comfort. The key word here is capable. They are capable when it doesn’t affect them — when they are not stressed.
So the simple rule of thumb: Don’t expect an apology when your child is upset. Actually don’t expect that you can teach your child anything you want them to learn when they are upset.
When you want an apology from your child, chances are she is stressed. She has hit or yelled or called a name. She has done something you want her to apologize for. The required apology is pointless.
What we really want is for our child to offer a genuine apology. In order to get that before maturity lets her know that she could feel better after offering an apology, we have to set the stage for it. We have to get the apology by de-stressing the situation.
Simply put, wait for the stress to leave and help your child to feel okay about herself. Do nothing in time of stress. For you as well as your child.
In your waiting time, remind yourself that you often say and do things you don’t mean. And you have way more impulse control than your child does. So give him a break. When you are feeling okay and you know your child is, go back to it – the Do-over.
Try something like, “I got pretty angry with you when you were fighting with your sister. I didn’t like the fighting and I reacted. I’m sorry for that. I know my anger upset you. I realize that I didn’t pay attention to your side and listen to how angry you felt. Here’s what I wish I had done instead of sending you to your room. I wish I had given you a chance to tell your sister why you were mad enough to hit her. And given her a chance to tell you how she felt. I know you both could have found a solution.”
With that, your child would feel understood and more connected. Stress reduced.
Then, “I know your sister feels hurt and is still a bit angry. Is there anything you’d like to say to her now?” Without the stress, he might go to her with his form of apology. If not, that means that he is still too mad. He needs to be able to tell you why before he can rectify the situation.
Once you have shared your apology and reassured your child that you really do want things to change, you can call on him to put in the effort as well. Just be careful not to fall back into any blame. You have to be prepared to really listen and to know that the behavior you don’t like is rooted in stress, and that makes it impossible to apologize. Once he has your understanding and help, he can behave differently.
Imagine a conversation with your teen after an angry altercation. Later in the day try: “I’m concerned about our relationship. What you said to me hurt. I also know that it came from you feeling hurt. You probably think I’m still treating you like a little kid. And I imagine you hate still having to follow our rules. Instead of speaking rudely to me, I’d like us to figure out how to make our things work better for both of us. Maybe some adjusted rules are in order.”
There’s no guarantee that either of these conversations will result in an apology. But at the very least, you are modeling the behavior you want to see in your child, and you are connecting. You are “doing over” the I’m right and you’re wrong power struggle that parents and children fall into when emotions take over. When your child is ready, that connection will become two-way. It is only when your child feels connected that she can apologize and make amends.
Main points to remember:
- When your child is upset, expect nothing.
- Go back over the situation when you and your child are calm.
- Own your concern, fear.
- Apologize for a reaction you made impulsively.
- Offer a change, i.e. no more time outs, listened more, change of rules, etc.
- Ask if there is something child wants to offer.