Should you make your child apologize?

After there's been a falling out between siblings, most parents insist that their children apologize to each other.  Most of us do this automatically, because it's expected, but also because we think that will teach the child how to repair things after a conflict.

But research on adult couples (by John Gottman, the pre-eminent couples researcher in the US) shows that when an adult feels forced to "apologize" to their partner before they're ready, it doesn't repair the relationship. It creates resentment and the relationship gets worse.

I haven't yet seen any research on forcing kids to apologize, but if you ask children what they think of this practice, they’ll tell you all about what they're learning from it and the effect on their relationship with their siblings.

  • “It’s lying to apologize when you don’t mean it.”
  • “When my parents make my brother apologize, I feel like I won. That feels good, but it doesn’t make me like him any better."
  • “When I’m mad, I hate apologizing. It just makes me madder at my sister.”
  • “I don’t like it when my brother apologizes to me when my parents make him do it, because he acts like he doesn’t even mean it. It makes me mad all over again.”
  • “Later I always like my sister again. I could apologize then. But not when I’m mad.”

Doesn’t it sound like forcing children to apologize is teaching all the wrong lessons, and we might want to re-think the whole practice? What could we do instead?

1. Focus on helping children communicate rather than on the ritual of apology.

If you follow the practices of helping children express their wants and needs, listen to each other, and restate what they heard their sibling say, children will begin to heal their conflicts at a deeper level, so that apologies often become almost superfluous, just as with adults.

2. Wait until the anger has subsided.

If she’s still angry, then she needs to feel heard before she can listen to her sibling’s perspective.

3. Once the child is no longer angry, empower him to repair things with his sibling.

 

“Your brother loves you and looks up to you. When you yelled at him, it looked like it really hurt his feelings. I wonder what you could do to make things better with him.”

4. If your child suggests apologizing, listen to her voice.

If she sounds sullen or angry, acknowledge that the apology wouldn’t be heartfelt, and ask her if she thinks that it would make her sibling feel any better. Say

 

“Apologizing is a wonderful way to make things better, Sweetheart, but I don’t want you to apologize until you mean it. I’m not asking you to say something that’s untrue; I don’t think that ever makes anyone feel better.”

5. Ideas for Repair:

If your child draws a blank and wants suggestions for repair:

  • Help rebuild the tower that the fight was about.
  • Build a tower for the sibling to knock down.
  • Repair or replace the damage done, for instance a broken toy.
  • Draw a picture or make a card listing three things you love about your sibling.
  • Give a big hug.
  • Play a game that the sibling wants to play.
  • Help the sibling with a chore.
  • Make an agreement and sign it, promising not to repeat the infraction and describing how the situation will be handled in the future.

Remember, though, that you aren’t assigning your child a “consequence” to pay off his debt. You’re empowering him to see himself as a generous person who can make things better when he’s done something hurtful. So HE has to choose what he might do to make things better. You can give him ideas, but then say “I know you’ll figure out the perfect thing to do….I can’t wait to see what it is!” Hug him and leave the room.

6. What if your child says “I don’t want to repair things with her!”?

Acknowledge that he’s still very angry, and why. If you can, help him with the anger. Then, set the expectation that when he feels better, a repair of some sort is in order.

 

“I guess you’re still so mad that you don’t want to make things better with her right now...and I know that even though you and your sister fight, you also love each other, and it makes things better if you can do something to repair things…Maybe you need some time before you’re ready to repair things with your sister. It can take some time for the anger to melt away….I can’t help you with your feelings any more right now, but we can talk again later…When you’re ready, I know that you will know just the right thing to do to make things better.”

7. Be a Role Model.

Children learn from us how to repair relationship ruptures. Be sure that when you and your child have a relationship rupture, you apologize and find ways to reconnect.

***

This article was excerpted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. published by Perigee/Penguin.

“This book walks parents through sibling scenarios – even ones for very intense children – and breaks down the specifics of how to approach common struggles, without making parents feel guilty or overwhelmed. It is a wonderful resource that gives parents the tools to not only help our children while in the midst of conflict, but also helps us to teach our children how to be the loving, kind and respectful brothers and sisters we know they can be.” — Gina Osher, The Twin Coach


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My daughter reacts so much better when I empathize and stay patient. And now I get to model that behavior instead of letting my frustration get the better of me.

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