Helping Our Children Say “I’m Sorry”

In this episode: The mother of a four-year-old is frustrated that her child will never say “I’m sorry” when he’s done something wrong. She has tried both gentle and more forceful approaches, as well as attempting to help him understand the spirit and intent of an apology, all to no effect.

Transcript of “Helping Our Children Say ‘I’m Sorry'”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I am going to be responding to a question about teaching a child to say sorry.

Before I begin, I want to give a special shout-out to Millie. Millie is a two-and-a-half-year-old in one of my parent-toddler classes and I just discovered last week that Millie listens to my podcast. Her mother told me that she requests that they be turned on in the car, and she likes listening to them. So I’m very flattered. I couldn’t be more flattered, actually. So Millie, I just want to say thank you so much and I enjoy you in class so much. We have such a good time. We have this little joke where we rush through wiping her hands before snack time, but I really get a kick out of her. Millie, thanks again for all the encouragement and support.

Okay, here’s a note that I received on Facebook.

“Hello. My son is four and four months and refuses to apologize ever. I’ve always followed your page and, by and large, try to follow your direction. But it’s becoming a bit of a problem. He’s getting in trouble for not saying sorry at daycare and he just won’t ever say sorry for anything. I feel like he is big enough to feel genuinely sorry about stuff? I’ve never really pushed the sorry thing. Instead of insisting on apologies, I have always just commented on the events and tried to find the feelings.

For instance, ‘You hit Alice and now she’s crying. How do you feel about Alice crying because you hit her?’ This has never produced an apology. Recently, I’ve been trying to help him find his way to saying sorry a bit more forcefully though. Here’s an example. Today he hit me because I wouldn’t give him something and I said, ‘Aw, that hurts. You hit me. I won’t let you hit me. We’ve talked many times about hitting being wrong and now I’m feeling hurt, sad and cross because you did. I’d feel better if you said sorry to me.’

He immediately started yelling and crying and then insisted that, no, I should say sorry for him for making him sad. I’m not sure what to do. I’m also seven months pregnant which is certainly affecting his behavior. He’s acting out in other ways, but this ‘I’m sorry’ problem has been ongoing forever.”

Okay, first of all, it’s important to recognize that our children are very aware of all the subtleties and nuances in our interactions with them, how we’re feeling and in all the messages we send through our words and our actions. They’re aware from birth. Thankfully studies are showing this now, so it’s not just something that observers like my mentor Magda Gerber and others of us who spend a lot of time observing children, it’s not just us saying we see this all the time. There are actually studies that have been conducted on this. So children are very aware. Even though we might think we’re not pushing something or we think we’re being very laid back about our child learning something like to say “I’m sorry,” our child will notice when we say, “You hit Alice and now she’s crying. How do you feel about Alice crying because you hit her?”

Now, when I put myself in that child’s position or I think of somebody saying this to me, it’s very obvious to me that they want me to feel bad that I hit her and to say I’m sorry or do something about it. I feel put on the spot. I feel like my parent is judging me and it doesn’t feel like the air is clear and I can come to looking at the situation really myself and coming to on my own that actually I feel bad that I did that and I’m sorry. To get to that place, I need time, I need a moment, and even at my mature state, I still need that bit of time to be able to get to that kind of vulnerable, humble place of being able to say I’m sorry.

If I’m feeling attacked or if I’m feeling judged or demands are being put upon me, it’s going to be really, really hard for me to get to that place where I can genuinely feel regret and want to apologize.

For example, let’s say I did something stupid in my car, which I’ve done before, and I know I did something wrong. Maybe it was even dangerous. I made a mistake, cutting somebody off. Maybe I didn’t see them in my blind spot or whatever, and if this person came up alongside me, then I might mouth the words “I’m sorry” through the window, but if that person was honking at me, yelling, doing, all kinds of things (that I don’t want to say in case Millie is still listening!), then I would be feeling defensive. I would not be able to say very easily, “I’m sorry.” If I did, it would be kind of a defensive I’m sorry, if anything, but I probably wouldn’t say “I’m sorry” if somebody put me in that position where I couldn’t get to that place of feeling humble and that I want to be kind to that person.

So it might seem that wanting our child to do the right thing, that that could not be compared to somebody angry in their car, but the truth is that children are so sensitive and aware that our judgments do feel like blasts on them. Our impatience does feel almost like an attack on them or just something that makes them freeze up. They feel all that energy and vibration from us, our discomfort, and that makes it really hard, again, for them to get to this place that they need to get to, to be able to apologize.

So I think understanding this process and how children perceive things is really important to being able to teach our children something as important as saying “I’m sorry” and really meaning it. We want them to mean it when they say it. We don’t want them to say, “I’m so sorry,” angrily, because my mother made me say this and then now I’m going to go back and do it again because I wasn’t really sorry and I didn’t really have empathy. And now I feel rejected by my mother so I’m feeling more angry and defensive.

Now, the way we can teach apologies is to model empathy, model regret, not apologizing for things in a “I feel sorry for you” way like, “Oh, I’m so sorry that I had to say no to you about this,” but from a place of strength and honesty and genuine, “I’m sorry that this made you upset, but at the same time, feel like I’m doing the right thing,” or, “I’m sorry I made a mistake and I actually don’t think I did the right thing there and I’ve changed my mind and I want to make it up to you.” Apologizing to our child, our child seeing us apologize to other people from a place of genuine regret and empathy, that will overrule whatever we try to ask them to say or tell them to say.

So, if we’re telling them to say “I’m sorry,” or if we’re kind of, without meaning to, shaming them by saying, “Look, how do you feel about that? This girl is crying because you hit her” and meanwhile the aware child, as they are, they see the child crying, they know that they did something, they’re taking it in. It takes them a longer time to take things in than it does us as adults. We were used to reading these situations.

For them, everything is new and they’re open to learning about it. But they need time to digest what happened. “Oh, wow, she’s crying. I did that.” They need that open space and time and calm vibrations coming from their parents, trusting vibrations.

If we’re in a situation where something like that happens, I would apologize to the child myself. I would say, “I’m sorry that happened.” Rather than focusing on my child at that point, I would focus on the child who’d gotten hurt and I would model a true apology.

Now, I’d like to just quickly touch on the way this parent described her more recent strategy to be more forceful about encouraging our child to say sorry, which, again, I totally understand the impatience and I totally understand the desire. It comes from a really great place of wanting to do the best for our children. I just don’t think that it works this way, so I don’t think it will help.

She uses an example: “Today he hit me because I wouldn’t give him something and I said, ‘Aw, that hurt you hit me. I won’t let you hit me.'”

So at age four he knows it hurt. I mean, at age two, he would know those. He knows he shouldn’t do it. He doesn’t need another lecture about this. All that is giving a lot of negative attention to this behavior and again putting him in a defensive place. I mean, no, it’s not acceptable that he hit, but to say “I won’t let you hit me. We’ve talked many times about hitting being wrong and now I’m feeling hurt and I’m sad and I’m cross,” I can see why she’s not getting an apology out of that.

There’s a lot of pressure in that approach and a lot of making a big deal about something that is impulsive behavior. Still at age four, this is common impulsive behavior.

As I’ve said before, impulsive behavior doesn’t mean the child doesn’t know that it’s wrong. It means that the child doesn’t know why he’s doing it. That’s why not giving it a lot of attention is going to help and then, so if you say, “Ow, that hurt. It hurts when you hit me. I don’t want you to do that,” then he might say I’m sorry when he comes to his senses and reason takes over the impulse, but not if he’s now getting blasted and lectured and all of that.

So then, of course, there’s the big aha here that she’s pregnant so she is going to see more of these impulsive behaviors happening now because her child likely feels challenged as all children do by the mystery around this, by the shift of focus from him to this other person that’s going to be there, and all the fear that goes around the unknown of this situation.

Now, as she said, this issue was going on before that and it makes sense to me because I think she’s, without meaning to, has been pushing it. A lot of us think that children aren’t picking up all these agendas that we have and they actually are. Right from birth, they’re feeling. They can feel if we’re in a hurry and we’re trying to get somewhere and we’re changing their diaper, and they’re going to put the brakes on because they’re feeling, “They’re not comfortable in this moment with me.” So every little thing, our children know.

That’s why we really, really have to trust them. I mean not just trust them, but 100% trust that they’re going to learn these things through our modeling . They’re going to learn them in time. We’ve got to believe the best of our children. Take that leap of faith. Then you’ll find as thousands of us have that your child will have these manners, and authentically the way we want them to.

So I hope this helps. Thank you so much for listening. For more, I’ve written about this in a post called “You’ll Be Sorry.” Also there’s a lot of information about teaching our children manners and where to set limits and how to set limits and how to deal with hitting and other difficult behaviors. There’s a lot of information about that in my book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

Thank you so much again. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Oh I love this advice…
    My little one gets distraught when she does something ‘wrong’ (breaks something, says something hurtful, lashes out, accidently hurts another child) – but she WILL NOT SAY SORRY!!
    I’ve asked her gently, after the event, because she is clearly very very remorseful in most instances. And she says “I’m only 4 and 3/4, I’m a bit too shy to say I’m sorry, maybe when I am 5 i can”
    It is seriously so cute, and demonstrates the array of nuanced emotions she is going through whilst negotiationg these complex growing up experiences.
    100% trust is terrifying and such a beautiful gift.

  2. This was interesting for me today. My daughter is only 2.5 but I’m also 7 months pregnant and it certainly adds layers to interactions. She’s only recently started ramping up frustrated behaviours such as hitting and I’m finding it more triggering than I would without the pregnancy as I’m thinking- well, firstly I’m already tired and sore and it hurts and secondly, she’s hitting a defenceless little baby and I need to get this under control before the baby’s born. It’s good to read the reminder about impulsive behaviour and how an apology is something that won’t come quickly or naturally for a while. I need to try giving it less attention.

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