Health & Fitness

Teaching kids to say they’re sorry — and to mean it

Jeff Durham illustration of different faces, all saying they are “sorry.”
Jeff Durham illustration of different faces, all saying they are “sorry.” MCT

Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always easy, for adults as well as kids. Often, depending on their age, kids utter half-hearted apologies simply because they’ve been prompted by their parents, rather than understanding their misdeeds.

Young children, in particular, need help grasping the concept, as in their preschool years they’re still learning that grabbing a toy from someone else or kicking a sibling because they’ve snatched a French fry off their plate is wrong.

Apologizing helps children accept responsibility for their actions and provides inroads to making things right again. It clears the air, helps heal relationships and gives way to a new beginning. Getting there, however — from basically uttering a forced (and often bland) “I’m sorry” to something more meaningful — is more complicated and takes time.

Here are some ways to get started:

Model apologizing. Leading by example is the best way to teach children the difference between right and wrong, so be the first to admit when you’ve done something that warrants an apology.

It can be something as simple as raising your voice because you had a bad day at work and then snapped at your kids for no other reason than you’re stressed. Life is about making mistakes and then correcting them. The sooner kids see that, the better off they’ll be.

Hug it out. Toddlers learn from a young age that giving hugs makes it “better” when they hurt someone or do something wrong. Teach them to verbalize apologies but also focus on the fact that hugs are one way to turn an apology into something more sincere.

Teach accountability. Discuss the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and discuss why it’s important to apologize. Owning up to mistakes is never easy but it’s the only way to rectify errors and make amends.

Talk about feelings. Help your child figure out what drove them to do X, Y or Z and how those emotions led to their behavior. Maybe they were jealous of their friend’s new toy or overtired and hungry when they started teasing a sibling in a hurtful way. Focus on the actions as opposed to the emotions. Kids need to learn that their feelings are OK and valid; it’s how they deal with them that matters.

Role play. Talk about constructive ways to handle emotions and brainstorm ideas on how they could have handled a situation better. This gives kids an understanding of how the other person may have felt and helps with the empathy process. By role-playing different scenarios together, your child will be more likely to use those positive tactics going forward.

Focus on solutions. Discuss how to turn missteps into something positive such as helping to fix something that was broken, giving a portion of much-beloved fries to a sibling come dinnertime, drawing a fridge-worthy picture for the injured party or writing a handwritten apology.

Reinforce love. Younger children especially need reassurance that even though they misbehaved, they are not “bad” and are still loved. For preschoolers, let them know that although what they’ve done may have hurt someone’s feelings or made them angry, by apologizing — and meaning it — all should be OK.

Wait for the all-clear. The ability to forgive is a crucial life skill and part of the apology process. That said, let your kids know that a cooling-off period may be in order before forgiveness is proffered. For true healing to occur, the offended party needs to know an honest effort is being made to avoid similar situations in the future. This is where sincerity and true remorse must be part of saying, “I’m sorry.”

The next best part? Hearing “I forgive you.”

Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs. For more information, visit