Q: My child got in an argument during a play date recently, and I made him apologize. He didn’t want to, of course, and it was like pulling teeth to get him to do it. Why is it so difficult for children to say they’re sorry? Are they embarrassed? Stubborn?

A: Yes to both, but we should also add confused to the list.

Kids don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “How can I mess up today?” They genuinely want to do the right thing. But they’re not born knowing what we expect from them or what we define as “good behavior,” and they’re often confused about what they did wrong. For example, if a child isn’t sharing a toy, he’s often confused when he gets in trouble for that. In his mind, he had the toy first; why should he give it away when he’s not done with it? When he gets in trouble, he’s often thinking, “What’s up with that?”

Behavioral change can happen simply by “fake it until you make it” – i.e., your child apologizes not because he wants to but because you’re making him do it. In that approach, it doesn’t matter if he’s sincere about the apology; it just matters that he gets in the habit of doing it. Any insight about the benefits of an apology will come later.

It’s common, though, for parents to feel frustrated when their kids’ apologies aren’t sincere. It’s not enough for those parents that their kids say the words, “I’m sorry.” They also want their kids to mean it.

But if you really want your child to understand and accept why he needs to apologize, it won’t do any good to force him. He’ll just resent it and still not understand why it’s such a big deal. (Remember, “What’s up with that?”)

Before a child can give a sincere apology, he has to learn empathy. A sincere apology simply can’t happen if your son doesn’t see things from the other child’s point of view. In the earlier example of the child with the toy, the parent could help his child explore times when he felt left out when he wanted to play with a toy. These are teaching moments, not punishing moments. The empathy might take awhile, but if you stay patient, your child will eventually get the idea.

Parents sometime ask me when they should just let the apology slide (they’re almost always asking about teenagers). The answer is that there’s no age where you have to “let it slide.” You’re the parent no matter how old your child is, and it’s important that you have expectations, rules, and boundaries for kids of every age. You set expectations about apologies because it’s important to you as a parent. And while teens sometimes seem like the most stubborn people on the planet, the values that you’ve taught them are still there somewhere. Set the expectation and then give them the chance to do the right thing. They normally will.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He’s been in private practice for more than five years, and he’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. He’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, please call 614-477-5565.)

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