How to Teach Your Child to Say ‘I'm Sorry’

How to Teach Your Child to Say ‘I'm Sorry’

Apologizing isn’t always easy for kids, so here’s how to break it down for them.

By Kelly Bryant

There’s certainly more than one way to raise a child, but my personal outlook has always been this: My children don’t need to be the smartest in the room or the best in any sport as long as they try their best and, most importantly, are polite and respectful. Manners can make you just as successful in this world as a high GPA.

Of course, accidents happen, feelings get hurt – no one is perfect. It’s hard to find an adult who can get through the day without stepping off course, so we definitely can’t expect kids, who look to us for modeling behavior, to be considerate all of the time. But what I’ve been trying to instill in my kids, with varying degrees of success, is the significance of an apology, or simply the act of showing compassion to someone they may have accidentally, or purposely, hurt.

But for some reason, there’s something about saying those two little words -- “I’m sorry” -- that my sons reject. My 5-year-old looks down and shuffles his feet. My 3-year-old pretends to be sleeping (seriously…while standing up). They look embarrassed. They act stubborn. It’s impossible.

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“A key aspect of getting our children to apologize is to help them step away from their ego, because at the end of the day what they’re trying to do is protect their vulnerable selves,” says parenting expert Sandra Martin. “If our kids are made to feel blame or shame, well, then they’ll act out and do everything they can do in their power to preserve their little egos. It’s actually quite natural and normal, and we are also prey to this as adults.”

So, how do we instill the importance of an apology when it’s hurting their little psyches? Jim Hjort, psychotherapist and founder of Right Life Project, suggests skipping the lecture, no matter how badly it wants to jump off the tip of your tongue.

First, ask your children questions about how they were feeling when they acted out. “They were probably experiencing a difficult emotion themselves, so empathize with it so that they feel understood,” he says. “Then, explore how they felt while they were misbehaving, and invite them to put themselves into the other person's shoes. For instance, you could ask, ‘How did you feel when you tore up John’s homework?’ and, ‘How do you think he felt?’ Allow kids time to think about the consequences of their actions.”


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Eirene Heidelberger, president and CEO of GIT Mom, a Chicago-based parent coaching firm, stresses the importance of teaching kids to make eye contact during an apology.

“Anyone can mumble an apology while looking down at the floor,” she says. “Strong eye contact is important to teach your child about the human connection and instilling self-confidence in everyday situations, including awkward ones.”

Most importantly, be patient, and don’t expect your children to come out of the gate with an innate sense of compassion. Coach them, nurture them, and set a positive example. You may not always get an apology, but one day you may get a thank you.

How do you handle apologies in your house?

Kelly Bryant is a freelance writer and pop culture junkie. She resides in Los Angeles with her husband and their two sons. Follow her on Twitter @MsKellyBryant.

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