Updated: Jul 21, 2020
There is quite a bit of controversy around whether we should be making our kids apologise when they do something wrong. There is one school of thought that says that children don't develop "theory of mind" and an understanding of other's perspectives until 5 years of age. Therefore, they are not able to really understand what they are doing when they say sorry. It is their belief that if you force a child to say sorry, you are teaching them to lie since they don't have the empathy to feel sorry. Then there is another school of thought that says that children have some understanding of others feelings, especially if they are upset from the age of 18 months. Therefore, they are able to understand the impact of an apology. My belief is that empathy is more complicated than that, and teaching to mend relationships is more than just saying sorry.
According to Dr Erin Leonard in Psychology today (Jul 2018), there are three types of empathy:
Emotional Sharing: we feel distressed when we see others distressed
Empathic Concern: we want to help
Perspective Taking: we can imagine what it is like to be the other person
When we look at empathy in this way we can see that see that it doesn't just develop at one age, it grows over time. So yes, developmentally true prospective taking doesn't really occur until a child is around the age of 5-7 years. However developing an understand of emotions in themselves and others can be taught much earlier than this. Despite the controversy one thing that is clear, to truly apologise there has to be some empathy.
How to build empathy
When big emotions come up for our children we need to “emotion coach” them through this. When we "emotion coach" there are steps we need to take.
Acknowledge their emotion: Whatever the situation, if you are going to help your child and connect with them you have to knowledge their feelings. If your child is upset then the "thinking" part of their brain is switched off. They are in their "emotional brain" so if you come and say "why did you do that" or "don't be scared" they will be reactive. The only way to help your child move out of this emotional state it to meet them in the emotion and label it. You can say "you must be very angry right now" or "yes it can be scary"
Use empathy and listen to their side: this is something parents usually struggle with as we want to jump in and fix the problem. We tend to be better at sympathy than empathy. Sympathy recognises the emotion but wants to fix it quickly. That's when we try and see the silver lining and say "at least.....". What this actually does is minimises the child's feelings and ultimately disconnects the relationship. If we are to teach our kids empathy, we have to show them empathy. We need to sit in that emotion and just say "I get it". When they feel heard, they will calm and then you can move to the next stage.
Problem solve together: When your child feels calm and heard, then and only then, will they be able to access their "thinking brain". When they can think clearer they will have the best chance to understand how others are feeling. This is the start of understanding the need to apologise and mend relationships.
Here you can talk them through how the other person may feel. Try and get them to work it out but support them is they need help. Then talk about what they could do to help the other person feel better and mend the relationship.
If we make building empathy a priority there will be so many other benefits. Our children will start to recognise their own emotions and regulate themselves more easily. They will build the skills to problem-solve and see situations from others perspectives. But also as we emotion coach we will improve the connection in our relationship with them in the process.
I have previously written a blog with some fun empathy building activities and games that might be helpful. Have a look at "Emotional Intelligence - Building Empathy" posted January 9 2020
Empathy game for details see Blog post Jan 9 2020 Emotional Intelligence - building Empathy
Apologise or Not to Apologise
So, do we force children to apologise? Well no but should we encourage an apology? Yes. If we force children to say sorry when they are in the heat of the moment, it is very unlikely that it will be a genuine apology. As I have just described, if they are in the middle of the emotion, they can't access their "thinking brain" so they are not able to see how the other person feels. Chances are they are feeling quite justified in what has happened, and not sorry at all. That is why emotion coaching first is so important. We need to move them from their emotional reactive state by empathising with them.
When they are able to talk about what has happened, talk about how others felt. What do they want to happen? What can they do to fix it? We shouldn't expect that children should be able to do this straight away. Adults often need time to process what has happened before they apologise. It is fine to allow them some time before they try and mend the relationship. You can say "you don't feel ready to apologise yet. That's okay, it can be hard to do this straight away. Have some time and I'm here if you need some help."
Having your child recognise the need to say sorry is a good start. But quite frankly, saying sorry may not be enough. I usually explain that saying sorry is like a band-aid or bandage. If we cut ourselves a bandage will help it heal quicker but it isn't instant. Sometimes kids want the other person to get over what happened quickly since they said sorry. This analogy can help them understand that "sorry" doesn't fix everything.
Talk to your child about how the relationship has changed and how we need to try and make it better. Sorry is a good start but they may need to do more. Have them think about what else they could do, then have them try it. Ask the other person, "does that help?" This is the beginning for both children to learn about conflict resolution. This doesn't mean that the child should have to do whatever the other child wants, but it does start them realising that when we damage a relationship, it can take time to mend.
The best way to teach children empathy and mending relationships is to model it ourselves. As parents we are definitely going to make mistakes, that is guaranteed. Trying to mend our relationship with our child when we make mistakes is actually the best way that we can teach our children how to do this for themselves. It can be hard as parents to own up to our mistakes without sharing the blame. It can be very tempting to say "I'm sorry but you shouldn't....." If we model taking ownership of our behaviour our kids will see how it is done and what it is like to forgive.
If we get caught up in the controversy about saying the words "I'm sorry" we miss the point. What we really want is for our children to become empathetic and understand that when we hurt others we need to mend the relationship. This is a far more important lesson than mindlessly saying "I'm sorry".