How children learn to say ‘I’m sorry’

Sorry is such a powerful word, isn’t it? It gives us an opportunity to accept our mistake and set things right.  It allows us to show regret or remorse for what we may have done or said. 

Many times we hear parents saying in a firm tone to their child- ‘I think you should apologise to Aunty/ the other child/ me.’ And the response may be an apology said in a huff, where it is clear that it has been said, but not meant. Or the child might say it without being sure, whether they should apologise or not. Or the child may glare back at the parent, and either silently or forcefully refuse.

Now some of the reasons, parents feel compelled to tell their children to apologise are:

  1. They are  unhappy with how the child has behaved with them or someone else  
  2. They want the child to realise their mistake and accept it
  3. They feel the social pressure and expectations of those around them to compel their child to apologise.
  4. Out of fear that their child will grow up to be an adult who thinks its ok to hurt people and get away with it.

These reasons push us to advise or instruct our children to apologise, and yet we face many setbacks.  So, let’s explore why children may refuse to apologise, and what can be done in such situations.

When a child makes a mistake, breaks something, fights, or does something we think is unacceptable, they are scared or very upset, themselves. Research in neuroscience tells us that now, in this state, the child goes into Fight, Flight or Freeze mode. He is not able to think about the situation logically or problem solve etc.  For example, Anju is playing at a friend’s home and while running around, she breaks a vase by mistake. Anju starts crying because she is scared and embarrassed, and also worried about the adult’s reactions. At this point yelling at Anju to be more careful, and making her apologise does not help. The parent can help Anju regulate and calm down. After that, the parent can speak to her about the incident, ask her what she would do differently next time, and what she would like to say to the person whose vase broke. When we respond to them in this manner, it helps the child actually reflect on what happened, take ownership of the situation and decide for themselves how they would like to deal with the situation. 

Sometimes the child may refuse to apologise, and that may make you uncomfortable. Here you could apologise for the child, at that moment. ‘ I am really sorry that this happened. I am going to speak to Anju about this and in the meantime, can I offer to replace/ pay for the vase’. Now, the other person has gotten an apology and is probably feeling better.  Secondly, it helps to be curious about Anju’s resistance, so you could say, ‘looks like you don’t want to say sorry, what’s happening?’ The child’s answer may not be one that you may expect and it may surprise you, but certainly will it give you a clear insight into what is going on in that little head!

You may also see this refusal happen when two children fight.  This happens because they feel they have not done anything wrong, or because they are hurt by the other child’s actions. At this time, the adult can acknowledge each child’s feelings. ‘I see both of you are hurt and angry’ or ‘Looks like both of you are unable to agree and are upset with each other.’  These type of responses, where we acknowledge and accept a child’s feelings about what happened, helps us role model empathy for them, an important step towards a genuine apology.

The point is that, when we have expectations and rules for our children, with their behaviour, it is best to see that we follow the  same when it comes to our behaviour. Role modelling is an effective tool to teach children and, apologising to our children when we make mistakes, when we may have hurt them emotionally or physically is extremely impactful, especially for toddlers and younger children.

Last but not the least, when our child is rude to us and we feel like screaming and saying, ‘How dare you speak to me like that? Say sorry right now!’ This is a good time to take a deep breath instead, and say, ‘I think you could say that differently, I find it hard to listen to you when you speak in this tone. Can we re-do that? I am willing to wait to hear what you have to say, once you calm down.’ 

For all of us, an apology is most meaningful when it is sincere and heartfelt. With children, that takes time, practice and understanding. Being a child’s emotional coach can go a long way in guiding and teaching them. So shall we try some emotional coaching with our children?


Author: Seemanthini Iyer is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.