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Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

On a recent play date, in a moment of anger, my son stepped on his friend’s toy and broke it. After that there was a lot of crying— both kids were in tears, and even when I asked him to say he was sorry, he refused. Needless to say the play date ended badly.

I’m not sure the best way to teach him the importance of apologizing when he does something that hurts someone else. And how do I do that without compounding his bad feelings about the incident?
- A Mom in Doubt

Apologizing is not easy—even for adults. Learning to apologize means holding the awareness of two things simultaneously— the experience of the person we hurt and the emotions behind our hurtful behavior.

Insisting your son give his friend an apology on the spot is understandable — it helps you feel like you’re doing something to solve the problem. In that scenario he may utter a reluctant “sorry”, but it’s not likely to come out sincerely and neither party is going to feel better about what happened.

Rather than punishing the misbehavior, or feeling frustrated with your child for not saying he’s sorry in the moment, make time to have a conversation with him later on, when you’re both feeling calm. Start by encouraging him to sort out his feelings about what happened. What made him mad enough to step on his friend’s toy? Then engage him in thinking about possible solutions. “What do you think would make your friend feel better?”, or “What could you do differently next time when you get mad when you’re playing with your friend?”

Help him understand that apologizing means more than just saying he’s sorry; it also means being able to name the behavior that caused hurt feelings—”I’m sorry for breaking your toy,” and being able to understand the impact it had—”I know that it was wrong because it made you sad and angry.”

When he’s ready, help your son figure out a way he can couple his apology with an action when the two kids get together again (for instance, helping his friend fix the broken toy, or giving him a hug, or drawing him a picture).

There will be plenty of opportunity to work with him on the art of apologizing as he grows up —and lots of chances for you to practice it yourself as well.

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