The Pitfalls of a Forced Apology (and what to try instead)

Written by WHPS Preschool Directors on .

As parents, it isn’t easy at times to navigate an incident involving our child hitting, pushing, or otherwise acting impulsively toward another child (or adult), purposely or accidentally. A common response when we witness something like this is to immediately ask our child to "Say you're sorry." 

We may feel embarrassed and quickly react, asking our child to say, “I’m sorry.”

In our roles as Preschool Directors, we have heard this play out many times. But, there are some issues with this approach:

  1. Young children are still learning to control impulses and may not know why they did what they did. Children also take longer than adults to digest an experience and process it.
  2. The pressure to apologize right then and there takes away their chance to learn from the situation. 
  3. What they do learn might be the wrong message. Forcing a child to say “I’m sorry,” can send the message that apologizing fixes everything and is a quick way to automatically right every wrong.  
  4. A true apology requires empathy, which develops gradually throughout the early years. Young children may not be developmentally ready to understand, much less own the words they are saying.

So what should you do if your child hurts another child?

  • Prevention - If you know your child is more apt to hit or act out when tired, frustrated, or overstimulated, try your best to remain close by so you can intervene before an incident occurs. Use a firm but even tone: “I won’t let you hit,” creating a physical boundary between the children with our hands. In a recent parent/teacher workshop, the presenter referred to these as "ninja hands."
  • Model Appropriate Response - If we are too late and a child is hurt (for example), you can apologize to the injured child and their parent/caregiver. Something as simple as, “Ouch, I’m sorry that Sammy pushed you. Let's help you up and see if you need an ice pack or a bandaid. Is there anything we can do to make you feel better? We are so sorry.” By taking such action, you are modeling to your child an appropriate reaction to take when accidentally or purposely hurting someone. This allows the child to also help care for the injured child, continue to develop empathy, and repair the situation. NOTE: This is similar to the "apology of action" approach we use in elementary school.

There is a reciprocal connection between learning an empathetic response and learning about forgiveness. When we model an appropriate social response, our child is also learning about forgiveness. This is one important way we help our children develop into empathetic human beings.

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