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Learning to say sorry. How do I teach my kids to apologize sincerely?


When is it the best time to learn how to apologize? 

A 2018 research has studied the topic of forgiveness in preschool children aged 4 and 5 years old, and what they found out was surprising. It seems that just like in adults, children deal with relationships and forgiveness in a similar manner.

  • Making a mistake against another child damages the relationship between them;
  • When 5-year old children who made a mistake shows remorse even though they did not say an apology, the victims were likely to forgive them;
  • When 4-year old children receive apologies for a mistake against them, they are more likely to forgive the transgressors than those who did not say apologies.

This gives us an idea that even young children are already capable of developing emotional and social skills that help them repair relationships. 

Relationship-building and forgiveness

As highly social beings, humans exist interdependently with a variety of relationships, inside the family setting and outside in the community and society. Part of being in relationships is making mistakes, messing up, hurting others whether unintentionally or intentionally, and the process of repairing the relationship. 

The repair process has two sides. The first being expressing one’s guilt, and deep regret, and trying to repair the mistake. And the other half is the victim’s forgiveness. When this happens, the relationship is mended and both parties can once again continue their mutually-beneficial tie.

How can parents teach children the skill of empathy so that they can apologize sincerely? 

Parents and caregivers have the chance to guide children through the process of making wrong things right in their relationships and using apologies to rebuild relationships. 

  • Be a role model of how to make sincere apologies. 

Children are the best mirrors. They reflect what they see at home. When we, parents, make mistakes, let's show our children how to say sorry by giving them a sincere apology. When children understand that making a mistake is part of being human, mistakes are not to be ashamed about, and definitely apologizing is normal and not shameful, they understand many things about relationships.

First, it teaches children how it feels to receive an apology. They get to feel how it is when their feelings of hurt are recognized, and the person who makes a mistake tries to make it up to them through changing their behavior.

Second, we teach our kids that a sincere apology is not merely a rushed “sorry”, but it also involves understanding how the other person feels, experiencing the consequences of the mistake, and doing acts to make the victim feel better. For example, a parent who helps a child fix the situation after apologizing tells the child that both actions and words work together for a sincere apology. 

  • Help children understand different perspectives and emotions. 

The biggest factor behind sincere apologies is understanding the consequences of one’s actions, including how a victim of the mistake feels. Children’s skill of putting themselves in other people’s shoes and empathizing with them develops as they age and as they practice the skill. 

To do this, parents might take time to regularly talk to children about their own feelings and other people’s feelings. These questions might be helpful: 

  • When (this situation)  happens to you, how would you feel? 
  • When you see your friend cry because (situation), how do you think she feels? 
  • Yesterday, you cried when (situation). You told me you felt sad about that. Do you think your friend feels something like that too? 

  • Teach children what to do to repair a relationship. 

As the child learns to perceive theirs and other people’s emotions, you can move to teaching them about making amends. For example, after they apologize, what can they do to help the other person feel much better? This takes a lot of support and guidance for children to learn, but the more they practice becoming aware of situations, without feeling ashamed for making a mistake, they become empowered to do acts that help the one they wronged.

As you guide your children, you also get to practice these skills. Lastly, the time you invest on them to learn these emotional and social skills will bear good fruit for their social and relational happiness in the future! 

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Learning to say sorry. How do I teach my kids to apologize sincerely?
Brandon Resasco