As parents, our instinct is often to demand our kids “say sorry” when they hurt another person or break the rules. But we should never force an apology. There are better ways to turn trouble into teachable moments.
1. Be an empathy role model
To emphasize that other people’s emotions matter, treat everybody with respect in your daily life. Don’t just nod at the mail deliverer—take the time to smile and talk. If the drive-in cashier is curt, respond kindly, then later ask your kid to brainstorm why this person might have been having a bad day.
2. Teach your kid how to give a meaningful apology
If your kid clearly regrets what they did, teach them this three-step approach: 1. Look the other person in the eye. 2. Say specifically what you are sorry for. 3. Say what you’ll do differently next time.
3. Fight nice
How parents and other grown-up loved ones duke it out will set the tone for how your kid handles conflicts. Your kid definitely notices raised voices and angry faces; make sure they see the part where you make up.
4. Break it down
Kids with developmental delays or cognitive impairments may need extra help understanding why what they said or did was hurtful. Use simple language to help them identify the causes and effects of their actions.
5. Make a wrong right
Have your kid come up with a way to atone for a wrongdoing. Natural consequences are best. For example, if your child broke a sibling’s toy, how about they offer a toy of their own that the other kid would really love?
6. Observe others
Talk with your kid about how other people in their life, such as friends or classmates, handled a conflict. Did the kid who did something hurtful seem truly sorry? What emotions was the victim showing? How did the two resolve their differences?
7. Have your kid retrace their footsteps
Help your child gain insight into their own thoughts and actions and what escalated the situation by asking questions in a non-judgmental tone: Why do you think you did that? I wonder how the other kid is feeling now? Has anyone ever made you feel that way?
8. Write it down
Older kids often do better expressing remorse in a letter or email. They have time to reflect and carefully choose their words and their offer of atonement.
9. Take ownership
When you, the parent, regret your behaviour, own up and model how to make amends.
10. Give the victim a voice
Kids better understand the impact of their actions if they hear how the other kid felt when they were hurt. Talk about the incident with both children individually first, so they can better articulate their take on what happened together.