Why saying ‘Sorry’ doesn’t always teach your children anything

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“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” sang Elton John & it is only 5 small little letters that can have a BIG impact from Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey to politicians the world over but why is a genuine apology important and how do we go deeper and teach children not to just utter the perfunctory & begrudgingly ‘sorry’ to their brothers and sisters or classmate in the playground?

Being sorry is important.

It teaches a child to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviour and words. It redresses a mistake, a wrong doing or a fit of anger. Being able to say sorry takes courage to admit to getting something wrong. President Trump of course found  it impossible to admit he makes mistakes & we all know someone who’s a bit like that.

The goal behind an apology is empathy, redressing a mistake & and then learning to try to change that behaviour for next time.

Why say sorry?

Nobody is perfect.

We all have bad days when things go wrong and we feel like the world is out to get us.

We all do stupid things without thinking at times.

We all make mistakes.

We all have accidents.

We all get mad at ourselves sometimes and take it out on our family and friends.

A good apology starts with your guidance.

The way you guide your children through an apology is as important as the apology itself.

To remove the stigma & drama from apologies, we need to be intentional about the way we react to our kids’ mistakes.

The first step to teaching your child how to apologise is to get your child—and yourself—to take a step back.

Choose your ‘Pause to Ponder’ Moment. It’s always unwise to try to teach when you are angry or when your children are have difficulty hearing you in the heat of the moment. It’s also not a good idea to ‘Talk & Teach’ when you might be embarrassed or could risk shaming your child in front of others. ‘Strike when the iron is cold’ is a good rule of thumb for passing on important values and messages around saying sorry.

Pick a moment when your child is calmer, so you can address what happened properly.

Never too early to start

It’s never too early to start the groundwork with children. Birth to age 3 provides a critical time for your child’s young brain to develop consciousness of social rules, norms and expectations but young children are often egocentric & self-centred before the age of 3 but it’s all about ‘Talking & Teaching’ them with patience and consistency right from the beginning.

It’s about how you model empathy and how you handle when you have hurt someone – children learn from their environment what a healthy relationship is, and you are their main teachers. So, model a sincere, genuine apology so your children learn from you.

Talking & Listening

The next step is about helping your child work out what they were feeling and how those emotions might have led to the problem behaviour. So, you could ask your child to name the emotion that they were feeling “What were you feeling just before you snatched Oliver’s toy?”

Perhaps your child was jealous of Oliver’s new toy or they were simply tired & frustrated & just needed some time out. Whatever the reason, the emphasis should be on their actions being the problem, not their emotions. All emotions are okay, it’s how we deal with them that matter.

Help your child, regardless of their age, give words to the feelings. Help them name, anger, frustration or unfairness, as this detaches them from the moment and helps them to understand themselves better. Otherwise children can get lost & a bit scared of their feelings.

Once your child understands more about their emotions and behaviour, it’s time to talk about how the other person felt.

Take them back to a time when something similar happened to them & get them to think back and remember how they felt in that moment. Get them to name how they felt. Then point out that might be how their friend felt when the same thing happened to them.

The next step is to take the learning into next time & ask them to problem solve the situation with what they’d do differently if they could do it all again. You can both brain storm suggestions and then act them out through role play scenarios together.

For example, instead of snatching the toy your child could have suggested playing with something else, taking turns or removed themselves from the situation by asking for a snack, drink or change of location.

Brainstorming with children can make for wonderful teaching moments. They help your child problem solve, feel empowered & learn from their mistakes.

One idea is to also draw the options of how to potentially respond next time with your child and to pop the picture up in the kitchen as a gentle reminder of ways they can choose to behave.

We all make mistakes but it’s what we learn from them that matters.

Showing children that mistakes are opportunities to reflect and learn, can change the way they view mistakes and can cut down on blaming, shaming and the instinctive defensiveness that comes with admitting a mistake.

We are all a work in progress.

The ingredients of a good apology

Now your child is ready to apologise.

A sincere apology needs to prioritise the other person’s feelings as well as demonstrate remorse, regret or sadness.

A good apology needs to do several things. It needs to name the harm done, it needs to be sincerely sorry, and it needs to repair the harm in some way.

Here’s my 3 Sentence Sorry Steps:

  1. I’m sorry for this wrong…..
  2. Because …..
  3. Next time I will….


This is where your earlier talk with your child will come in handy because they’ll already know how to complete the sentences.

For example:

‘I’m sorry for taking your toy without asking.’

‘This was wrong because I hurt your arm and it’s not my toy.’

‘Next time I will suggest taking turns instead of snatching your toy.’

This stops your child feeling that they are ‘losing’ when they are apologising, and helps them feel that both of them are ‘winning’ together towards an improved situation.

Try it with your kids when they are squabbling.

Call out ‘Time Out’ – what needs to change here so you both feel better?’

But I haven’t done anything wrong

But what happens when your child genuinely doesn’t think they did anything wrong?

They could be having a hard time admitting the wrongdoing to themselves or they might not understand the other person’s point of view. That’s when it’s important to talk about what just happened to get a shared understanding of the harm. Encourage your child to ask their friend/ brother or sister how they felt so they can hear it from their point of view.

No shouting – just explaining.

Being able to talk to another person and listen to what the other person is explaining can help your child gain a different perspective.

There are some things that saying sorry for won’t be able to make right.

There are some things that saying sorry for won’t be able to make right.

It’s important to teach children that apologies are not about being forgiven, they’re about taking responsibility for their actions.

Learning to genuinely apologise and embrace mistakes, especially at a young age, goes a long way toward instilling empathy, holding ourselves accountable, and preventing bad behaviour from becoming an abusive pattern in the future.

When children are taught this at a young age, it becomes natural and normal to them to apologise sincerely. They get used to being specific about their wrongdoing, examining the consequences of their actions and it builds empathy. They also get used to making a commitment to change & to actually stop the unwanted behaviour.

It’s about self-awareness and learning from our mistakes and learning to make amends.

The ‘Sorry’ Ages & Stages

Age 2:

Toddlers won’t really understand what the word ‘sorry’ means at such a young age, but they do understand and copy actions. By making an apology into an action, such as giving a hug or returning a toy, toddlers will begin to understand how some of their actions may be hurtful to others.

Ages 4-6:

As children start to get older, their understanding of what an apology is will start to develop. By this stage of childhood, children will start to learn how to make an apology.

It is important to teach your child the difference between apologising for doing something wrong and apologising for getting caught.

Try to encourage your children to realise and understand what they are apologising for and show them how they can act differently next time.

Ages 8-10:

By this stage of childhood, your children should have a good understanding of what an apology means and when to use one.

They should also be taught at this stage that even though an apology may be given, it may not always be accepted by the other person.

The important thing for them to know is that they have given a sincere apology and have learned that their actions may hurt people.








How do you handle ‘Sorry’ in your house?





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