Saying Sorry

On occasion, we answer reader questions on our blog. We choose questions based on the issues we frequently hear about from families we work with. In today’s post, I answer a parent’s question about how to get her child to apologize.


Dear Sarina,

My 6 year old threw a fit at camp last week for a variety of reasons. We have figured it out what caused it. However, during the fit she was VERY rude to her counselor. She refuses to say sorry or write a note or even draw a picture. She is embarrassed. I'm embarrassed. Any thoughts?

Dear Reader,

Great question! My guess is that your daughter is pretty clear that her actions may have been hurtful, the challenge is to find a way for her to repair the situation with her counselor that doesn't leave her feeling even more embarrassed or down on herself.

We all have the need to maintain dignity. When kids or grown ups are at a point where they feel they have to lose dignity by doing what someone else tells them or maintain dignity by resisting, they will resist. This often comes up when we tell them to apologize.

The truth is, deep down we know we want them to apologize because THEY know they need to, not because we tell them to. To get to that place, I would step back and have a conversation. Start with how she was feeling when the meltdown occurred. Really listen, without giving your own opinion. If she is stuck, you could ask questions..."I wonder if you were feeling..."

Then, maybe find a time when you felt a similar way and maybe didn't respond the way you wanted to in the moment. Talk about the day-to-day times that this happens to all of us, the small moments. Maybe a partner or coworker did something you didn't like and you responded in a different way then you meant to. Share how you may have felt bad about yourself and it made it hard to think about how the other person might have been feeling.

Depending on how the conversation is going, either then or the next day, move to how her counselor might have felt during the interaction. Maybe she can find a time when a friend responded in a less than kind way to her? Ask what helped her feel better. Was there anything the other person could have done to help repair the situation? The idea here is to move away from blame and towards empathy, so she can move away from blaming herself and others and toward connecting with her feelings and those of her counselor. Ideally, we want to help children see that we all make mistakes. When we are having big emotions, we don’t always respond from our kindest selves. Making a mistake isn’t wrong. We just need to be mindful of how it impacted those around us and what we can do to make a repair.

Ultimately, the decision to make a repair with her counselor has to come from her. I would end the conversation with your daughter by saying, "I trust your judgment on how you want to handle this with your counselor. I am happy to help if you need anything from me to help you repair the situation." Then I would leave it alone, not another word if possible unless she wants to talk more. The more we put pressure on, the more likely she is going to try and maintain dignity with resisting.

Likely, the counselor has lots of experience with kids and knows we all have bad moments and make mistakes. I know it’s so hard as the adult because we feel the adult pressure to fix the situation. If you want, you could say to the coach when your daughter is not around something like, "I feel bad about what happened last week with my daughter and you. We talked about it and discussed how she was feeling and how you might have been feeling. I know forcing her to apologize would mean it wasn't really coming from her. I let her know that I trust her judgment that she will check in with you when she is ready."

The best thing you can do for your child is to model in day to day life that mistakes are ok, it doesn't mean you are a bad person, just an opportunity to learn from it and repair the situation.

Thanks again for sharing your question with us!

**For more information on teaching kids how to make an authentic repair, check out Positive Discipline in the Classroom: Recovery From Mistakes