Children have so much to learn and it is inevitable that they will make many mistakes as they grow. Parents are often quick to insist on an apology when a child hits another child or grabs a toy away. Most parents want their children to grow up with good manners, socially accepted and kind to others. However, when parents insist on an apology, they frequently hear their children say “I’m sorry” so they can quickly get out of trouble. So how do parents help children build social-emotional skills without forcing an often insincere apology?
1. Build empathy. Children have a very egocentric view of the world and empathy must be taught. Questions such as “How would that feel if it happened to you?” can encourage children to start to put themselves in others’ shoes. Creating a feeling of not wanting hurt someone instead of an automatic sorry should be the goal. Work with the child to find a way to make the other child feel better in a calm and empathetic way such as offering an ice pack, stuffed animal, etc. Then make sure to praise children for their helping the injured friend. Parents are often quick to first reprimand the aggressor which draws more attention to the behavior that shouldn’t be repeated. Instead, parents can immediately focus on the child who has been wronged showing that the negative act doesn’t get the spotlight.
2. Teach replacement skills. Wait until the event is over and everyone is calm and discuss the alternatives rather than punishing for the offense. Questions should be asked such as, “since it’s not okay to hit, kick, bite, what can we do instead?” Role play scenarios during this calm time. Teach age appropriate replacement skills such as saying “STOP” very firmly, ignoring if possible and asking an adult for help. Children need to be taught alternatives to use rather than physical expression of emotions, while being assured that it’s okay to be mad, sad, frustrated, etc. Under the age of 3, remember that redirection and positive reinforcement are best and time-outs are not age appropriate. Children need to learn about how the other child is feeling due to their egocentric nature. Statements such as “her face looks sad because it hurt when she got hit…” and “Can you ask what they need?” can be helpful.
3. Model apologies. Parents may feel that saying sorry to their children challenges their authority; however, it is necessary to apologize to children in order for them to learn to do it themselves. Parents are human like children and will make many mistakes. Through their honest admittance of what they have done wrong, children realize that it is okay to make errors and possible to learn from them.
It can be embarrassing as a parent to have one’s child harm another child. To save face in front of others, parents are often tempted to immediately tell their child to apologize. Instead, parents can look at their children as needing skills and institute the methods above to encourage them to eventually make amends and have it make sense.