Helping Children Learn To Apologize

Injury occurs one of two ways: accidentally or intentionally.

We need to help our children be prepared to deal with the inevitable in their lives. Accidents do happen and we need to show them the way to make amends when things have gone wrong. We need to teach these skills, though, beforehand, versus after the fact.

Accidents hurt as much as an intentional wound. When we are involved in an accident, or regrettable incident, all parties have responsibilities to each other. The people who are injured, if possible, need to let the others involved know that they are injured and communicate what needs to be done to remedy the damage, as it may not be readily apparent. The accident victim needs to say for example, “I hurt my knee. Can you get me a bandage?”

When a child’s actions cause an accident, we need to coach the child to offer an apology. By ignoring the incident and not apologizing, our children need to understand that they run the risk of people thinking that they acted on purpose. The sooner an apology is offered, the better. Between the ages of three to six, children are in a critical period for learning social skills, so showing them how to apologize can be done in a matter of fact way.

An apology consists of four steps. First, say you’re sorry. Secondly, ask how to help the other person get back to normal or feel better. Then offer to change behavior so the incident doesn’t reoccur. Finally, ask for the apology to be accepted. A sincere apology might sound like this:

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to run into you. Are you hurt? How can I help you? I’ll be more careful about where I’m going. Will you accept my apology?”

Being accidentally hurt by a person who expresses concern about you can be forgiven and forgotten. Most of the hurts of a three to six-year-old are accidental.

Unfortunately, we also need to show our children how to apologize for those incidents where they acted out of anger or hurtful intentions.   The format of the apology is the same as the one used for accidents. For regrettable incidents, sometimes a cooling off period must occur between the event and the apology.

Forcing our children to say they are sorry when they are not does not help our children become better people.

A child may not honestly be able to say he or she is sorry about hurting another person. But perhaps the child can speak the truth by saying that he or she is sorry about hitting or name-calling.

The three-year-old who has knocked down a playmate who took his toy, might be coached to say something like this:

“I apologize for pushing you down. I didn’t like that you had my toy. Next time I will try to tell you that I want my toy. What can I do to make you feel better? Will you accept my apology?”

By giving small “what if?” lessons to our young children, we can help them begin to develop life long interpersonal skills. These lessons can take only a few minutes as we propose certain predicaments:

What if you accidentally knocked your sister down while you were running in the backyard? What would you do?

What if your friend came over and played with your favorite toy? What would you do?

What if you got upset and hit a friend? What would you do?

What if a friend hit you? What would you do?

Taking a few minutes to teach our children how to apologize and anticipate potential conflict will help them learn how to right some of the wrongs in their lives.

5 Responses to “Helping Children Learn To Apologize”

  1. Margaret Simoes

    Very helpful article. I will have a special circle on this, thank you!

  2. Would using dolls or other toys be useful in creating scenarios for kids to practice apologizing be advantageous over an abstract scenario that might be difficult to conceptualize for our young concrete thinkers?

    • Miles,

      In my experience, I have found children as young as two-years-old able to accept my apology when I accidentally bumped them or some similar incident.

      Modeling the type of behavior we want to see in our children is perhaps our most effective teaching tool.

      We can set up situations, we call them vignettes in Montessori classrooms, where we play out a situation. For example one adult bumps into another adult and then offers a sincere apology.

      It takes a very short time to act this out, but the children see and absorb the information readily.

      Another method is by using direct instruction in an indirect situation.

      Using our apology example, we might say:

      Samantha, remember yesterday when I bumped into you and I said I was sorry?

      I was so worried that I had hurt you, so I offered you an apology.

      First I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to run into you.”

      Then I asked if you were hurt and how I could help you feel better.

      Next I said I’d be more careful. I wanted you to know that I’ll be more careful.

      Last I asked if you would accept my apology.

      Let’s pretend you bumped into me. What would you do first?

      From this point I’d work with the child to step through the apology process.

      Please note that this takes many teachings. Most of us don’t get it the first time!

      Back to your question about using dolls or toys to play out this scenario:

      I’ve seen people do that. I’ve seen children, with no prompting, use toys to act out a situation and practice different social skills.

      For me I’ve found that there is a level of respect the children respond to when I visit with them in a calm matter-of-fact way to explain the workings of the world.

      Using toys, in my experience, to explain a situation feels like “talking down” to the child.

      My preference is to do what I’ve described, to talk with the child and show them step by step how to handle a situation.

      It seems more respectful to me and the children respond to that.

      Hope that helps.


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