How many times have you asked your child to apologize to someone else for his or her behavior?

“David, please tell Sarah that you are sorry for hitting her.”

“Julie, please go and apologize to Emily for being mean.”

I’m sure that we could all think of a million examples of times that we’ve had to encourage our children to say “I’m sorry” for hurting someone else either physically or emotionally.

Yet, is the apology really effective? Does it work if we have to encourage it?

The Anatomy of an Effective Apology

According to Karen Cerulo, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, a successful apology has three guiding principles.

  1. Don’t wait – Apologies are more effective if they happen right away. Don’t wait to have your child provide one.
  2. Apologize for your behavior, not for what people thought – In other words, saying that I’m sorry that you misunderstood me doesn’t really help. The apology should be for what was done, not what others might have thought about it.
  3. Don’t give context – No, seriously, it doesn’t matter to the other person what else was going on in your life.

Cerulo also encourages the apologizer to identify the victim at the start of the apology, express remorse, and then look to make some kind of restitution.

We also know that apologies are more powerful when there is a perceived loss on the part of the person apologizing. That loss might be financial but is more likely to be a commitment to a change in behavior.

An effective apology then is really complicated. Each step of Cerulo’s effective apology seems like an awfully complicated skill for a middle schooler, let alone a toddler. So what do we do help our kids learn to apologize?

Getting Our Kids to Apologize

Apologies seem to require a great deal of empathy and understanding of the impact of our behavior on another person. And empathy is definitely something that we want to build on and encourage in our children, but it doesn’t happen naturally. Here are some ideas to help you build your child’s apology skills:

Bring Yourself to Eye Level

Our size can be a big disadvantage when we are working on getting a child to apologize. Shrinking yourself down to their eye level helps you connect with them and provides some comfort in an uncomfortable situation. Don’t forget to use a calm, quiet voice – your tone and volume can help deal with the potential embarrassment.

Identify the Emotion

Empathy requires understanding how the other person feels. Some kids may need coaching to see facial expressions and body language that indicate sadness or fear. Help your child find the words to understand what the other child is feeling. You can prime your child for this by building up their emotional vocabulary (insert link).

Review What Happened

Go back over the events with an emphasis on connecting the behaviors to the feelings that you just uncovered. The key here is to show cause and effect between behavior and emotions.

Put the Shoe on the Other Foot

Once the action is connected to the feeling, you need them to think about if they would be ok experiencing that behavior and its connected feeling. “How would you feel if they took the truck? Would you be upset?” This connection can help the better build the sense of empathy that we want to have in place.

Give Them Space to Say Something

Call out - The Power, or Lack Thereof, of the Apology

Rather than putting words in their mouth, give them the opportunity to say something that they feel and mean. For kids who have developed the skill to appropriately apologize, they will when given the opportunity. For others, you can encourage them to check on how the other child is feeling and ask if they can help them somehow. You can also share that when people are mean or hurt another person, they say I’m sorry to let the other person feel better and to share that they won’t do it again.” This coaching can help them put the apology into their own words which is much more effective than you dictating the apology.

Accentuate the Positive

Don’t forget to spend time catching your child doing good. “I like how you are using your words; Good job sharing your toys.” You want to emphasize the prosocial behavior and provide attention to encourage it to happen more often.

Model Apologizing

Just because we are adults doesn’t mean that we aren’t also obligated to apologize. When you do this in front of your children, they learn that this is acceptable and appropriate behavior for everyone. You can even use a template for an apology that calls out the processing that you are doing with your child:

I’m sorry for (whatever the behavior was)
This is wrong because (how did I hurt your feelings).
In the future, I will (show restitution and remorse)

Put each of these steps together and you will start to feel less like an apology enforcer and more like an empathy encourager.