How To Teach Kids To Say Sorry: 3 Steps for Success

Mom talking to her young daughter

Thanks to nine-year-old Braydon, little Emily’s Barbie lost her head while getting ready for an evening out.  But even as Braydon dutifully – and immediately – apologizes to Emily and her doll, the stolen glances he’s giving his video games leave the Nintendo getting more eye contact than anyone else in the room. 

So how do we teach kids to say sorry in a meaningful way?

While forcing kids to apologize in the heat of the moment often makes parents feel better, it does little to help children truly understand the effects of their misbehavior.  Instead, put the “sorry” on standby and—when everyone is calm and collected—follow these 3 steps:

1. Lose the lecture

Forego the diatribe about your child’s misbehavior and replace it with questions to help your child understand her emotions and actions.

Start with, “What were you feeling when you ripped John’s homework in half?” This helps to teach that she should take responsibility for her emotions and that while it’s okay to feel mad, sad or frustrated, the action that resulted was not.

Next, tie that feeling and action to the effect it had on the other person.  “How do you think it made your brother feel when you tore up her homework?”

By using questions, you can help your child understand the feelings that triggered the bad behavior and give him tools to respond appropriately next time.

2. Pass on punishment

Instead of throwing down the gauntlet, take a deep breath and focus on solutions to make amends. Start by asking “What could you do to make it right?”

A verbal apology is a great start, but since children best learn through action, it’s good to pair it with an act of kindness such as helping fix what was broken or drawing a fridge-worthy picture for the injured party.

3. Role-play the “re-do”

Give your child the opportunity to make a better choice next time he has the urge to decapitate Barbie.  “If you could do things over, what would you do differently in this situation with Emily?” 

Give him time to think and then brainstorm constructive ways to handle his emotion, then role-play them together.

  Your kids will be more likely to use these positive tactics next time if they’ve had the chance to practice them first with you.

Final Thoughts

Although it may be hard at first, putting some much-needed time between the misbehavior and its apology will lead to a considerably more sincere “sorry.”  You’ll find your kids better understand their actions, and take responsibility, by developing the empathy needed to learn from their mistakes.  And that’s worth the wait!

But like anything in parenting—once you get the apologies under control, you may see other issues arise.

If you need more strategies to deal with the sibling rivalry or mealtime battles or your everyday power struggles, I’d love for you to join me for a FREE ONLINE CLASS. I’ll teach you how to get your kids to listen—no nagging, reminding, or yelling required.

As always, we are wishing you a joyful and peaceful parenting journey. And, if you ever need anything, we at Positive Parenting Solutions are always here to help!

About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.