High River United Church of High River, Alberta


Should I Make My Child Say "Sorry"

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We’ve all been there – that moment when our child has burst out with angry and hurtful words at an inappropriate moment or in frustration has flung out their arm and hit their teacher (or grandparent) or hauled off and kicked another child for taking their toy.


The recipient of the angry outburst is hurt.  We are feeling embarrassed.  We want our child to say, “Sorry,” because we know they’ve done something wrong.  But there is no Sorry in them.  They feel absolutely justified in their anger and frustration, and maybe rightly so. 


Do we force them to apologize when they have no intention of apologizing?  Which means that we would end up arguing with them in front of everyone trying to get the “Sorry” out of them, threatening harsher and harsher consequences to try to force the issue (to the point where we don’t want to carry through on what we’ve threatened) all the while feeling more and more embarrassed and frustrated ourselves.  Either that or we shrug our shoulders and pretend nothing happened and walk away with our child trying to smile.  Neither wrestling an apology from our child or pretending that nothing happened or, worse yet, starting to justify our child’s behaviour even though we know it was inappropriate – none of these leave us or our child or the victim of their frustration feeling satisfied.  So is there another way?


Let’s use a real example: another child has taken the toy my child was playing with and my child gives him one great big kick.  What has just happened?


a. my child was playing with the toy and enjoying it. The other child didn’t ask. Even if the other child asked, my child was playing and didn’t see the need to give it up at this moment.  If the toy was the other child’s toy, my child is playing with it now and it feels it’s theirs.


b. the other child sees a toy they like. The younger they are, the harder it is to understand that they can’t just have it right now. (That requires mixed feelings which don’t start to develop until at least 5-6 years old – and sometimes are hard to find even in adults but I’ll come back to that).  The other child wants the toy and can’t say in their mind, “Oh another child is playing with it. I have to wait.”  That’s mature thinking – beyond a preschooler – and sometimes beyond even adults.


c. The other child takes my child’s toy and frustration fills my child.  Emotions are meant to move us and so this frustration moves my child to hit.  Now there are other ways that the frustration could move – but, especially in younger children, there is not going to be any analysis of the frustration and what to do with it.  Toy taken = Frustration = Kapow!


So now we have another child who is hurt.  Our child has done something wrong (though it may be totally justified, at least in their mind.)  Do we make them apologize?


Well, since we don’t want to get into that wrestling match with them around the apology, and we don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen, and we don’t want to defend our child’s bad behaviour, there are other alternatives:


a. we recognize that justice needs to be done in the situation.  That means that the person who is injured needs an apology.  They need to have their injury acknowledged.


b. It’s what we do as followers of Jesus.  We forgive and ask to be forgiven.  We seek healing in relationships.  But your child isn’t going to want to hear that in their moment of frustration. In the heat of frustration is the last moment when you want to try to teach your child about following Jesus or help them use good manners.  When they have cooled down, later when things are calm and you are cuddling and your child is feeling sure that you love and care for them, then you can talk about what happened, learn from their perspective and share what we do when our frustration has burst out of us in less than helpful ways.


c. In the moment, an apology is needed, and it is okay if you, as the adult/parent, are the one to give the apology.  “Oh Jessica!  My Dakota just hit you.  That hurt.  I’m so sorry that happened.”  Make sure that you don’t run-down your child.  Just keep to the facts.  The other child (or teacher or aunt or uncle or grandparent) will appreciate the acknowledgement that there was injury and injustice.  That will go a long way to heal their hurt feelings.


d. Sometimes you can script an apology, if the emotions aren’t too intense and you don’t have to fight for it.  “Dakota, you’re frustrated because Jessica took your toy.  I know that’s why you hit Jessica.  Sometimes that happens, but when we hurt another person we need to say we’re sorry. Let’s go and say, “Sorry” to Dakota.”  If your child says, “Sorry”, great!  If not, then say, “Jessica, Dakota and I have come to say we’re sorry.  We know that that hit hurt you.” Don’t fight for your child to say, “Sorry,” if they don’t want to – it takes things in the wrong direction.


The ideal situation is when your child apologizes because they truly feel sorry about the situation.  But in the heat of the moment, that isn’t going to happen.  Mixed feelings are when you can hold two thoughts/feelings in your mind at once.  “I want that toy but I can’t have it right now.” “It was my toy but I hurt somebody in frustration.” That’s mature thinking.  It doesn’t exist in pre-schoolers.  It begins to develop by the age of 6 if conditions are right in the child’s life for maturation to be on track.  But, in anyone of any age, intense emotion, hunger and tiredness can take away our ability to have mixed feelings.


So your child, when they are full of frustration, are not going to feel the “Sorry.”  Maybe Grandma said something that hurt their feelings (whether she intended to or not).  Maybe the friend took the toy without asking.  Maybe they tried their hardest but still didn’t pass the test at school.  There are lots of reasons for frustration and the younger the child, the harder it is for that frustration not to move into a punch or kick or angry words.


Learning to say that you are sorry is a skill that we do need to learn as part of living with other people and forming healthy community.  Learning how to channel our frustration (but not bury it) is another skill to be learned along the way.  But in the moment when everything goes sideways and our child’s behaviour warrants a “Sorry” we may not be able to get them to say, “Sorry” without it hurting our relationship with our child.  So we as adults step up!  We say the “Sorry.”  Justice is done.  And then later, when calm returns and our child feels all of our love, we can listen to what happened for them in that situation and help them begin to learn the skills to deal with those frustrating situations we face throughout our lives. 

May 21, 2015                           ©Susan Lukey 2015

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