Let me start by saying that my toddler owes a lot of people a lot of apologies. Namely, me. But I’ll save my grievances for another day and pay him back someday by waking him up early during his teenage years and finding new and exciting ways to embarrass him in front of his friends. I’m kidding. Mostly.
At 3 years old, he’s doing what threenagers do: learning to cope with emotions, having meltdowns, pushing boundaries, and fostering his own independence, all the while sprinkling in moments of tenderness, silliness, joy, and creativity. It’s a real rollercoaster for all of us.
The rules of his world don’t always make sense and most certainly would not fly in the adult world. Case-in-point: when he snatches a toy from his little sister, it’s “sharing”; when she does the same thing to him, it’s “stealing.”
It’s a common scenario at home, at playdates, and at daycare or preschool: the upset toddler loses their cool in a moment of anger or frustration and hits/throws/bites/insert-undesirable-behavior-here. The flustered parent of the offending child defaults to adult social norms and demands their little one apologize to the hurt party. But as we prepare our kids to one day become what I assume we all hope to be functioning, happy, and kind adults, asking them to play by the rules of the adult world at their young ages isn’t always the right approach.
As we prepare our kids to one day become … functioning, happy, and kind adults, asking them to play by the rules of the adult world at their young ages isn’t always the right approach.
When it comes to empathy and putting oneself in another’s shoes, a forced apology isn’t much of a teaching mechanism after all. Forced apologies can leave kids feeling confused, ashamed, and resentful, rather than actually sorry, I learned from childcare experts ranging from clinical psychologists to social workers to early childhood education professionals.
Why Forced Apologies Don’t Work
Put simply, kids don’t learn to feel genuinely sorry by being told they need to say they are. They learn by experiencing and understanding their own emotions and other’s feelings too.
The catch? Toddlers aren’t very good at dealing with large, intense emotions. They get overwhelmed easily, and they need someone to help them both understand the feeling and how to manage it, according to early childhood education professional Linda Nelson, who is KinderCare’s curriculum expert.
“Forcing a toddler to apologize is not appropriate to their level of development,” Nelson said. “Toddlers are just starting to learn about the myriad of emotions they—and others—are capable of feeling. They are also only just beginning to gain the ability to express their own feelings through words.”
Without having developed a full understanding of their own—let alone other’s—feelings just yet, a forced apology may cause more problems, according to licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Sarvenaz Sepehri of A Change Within Sight.
“Forcing a toddler to apologize can create feelings of shame, as the child can become overly identified with their mistake and feel that they, themselves, are bad or inadequate,” Dr. Sepehri said. “When in fact, you’re trying to normalize that everyone makes mistakes, and there are ways to repair a rupture.”
This certainly isn’t to say that you’ve scarred your child for life by making them apologize. I know personally how easy it is to default to standard social norms like asking little ones to apologize when you have the eyes of other parents watching you in social situations. But perhaps now it can be an educational moment for us all to consider ways to handle these uncomfortable situations differently… ways that achieve what we’re all ultimately hoping for.
What To Do Instead
Instead of making toddlers go through the motions of apologizing, help them understand their own emotions and also how the actions they took affected others and made them feel.
“Toddlers are at an age where they are developing theory of mind—the ability to imagine and understand that others have their own unique feelings,” Dr. Sepehri said. “Instead of jumping to an apology right away, help your toddler imagine how the other person may have felt. Were they sad, mad, or hurt?”
From there, help your little one create a link to a time when they felt any of these emotions. This can help them empathize with what the other person is experiencing. You can explain that an apology is one way to make amends but also show that there are other ways to show you’re sorry, Dr Sepehri recommended. If someone is physically hurt, offering a bandage or ice pack may be one example to model. If they’re crying, perhaps bring them a tissue to show your toddler how to go beyond “I’m sorry.”
If someone is physically hurt, offering a bandage or ice pack may be one example to model. If they’re crying, perhaps bring them a tissue to show your toddler how to go beyond ‘I’m sorry.’
While we may feel tempted to direct all of our attention to the hurt party first, licensed clinical social worker Kira Baskerville-Williams of Evolution Mind Therapy recommended a different approach.
“Parents should wait for their child to calm down, and then acknowledge how their child is feeling before explaining to them how the other child may be feeling,” Baskerville-Williams said. “Then model for the child what a resolution may look like and what an apology may look like.”
One way to do this is by speaking directly to the hurt child the way you would want your own child to speak to them. For example: “I can see you are hurt. I’m sorry that happened. What can I do to help you feel better?” As all parents know, our little ones are always watching and modeling the behavior they see from us.
What Actually Works to Teach Empathy
One of the first ways we can teach our youngest children about empathy is through modeling it, according to experts.
“If you do something that you need to apologize to your child or another family member for, model what a sincere apology looks like,” Nelson said. “State what you are sorry for, why what you did was wrong, and what you will do differently in the future.”
Discussing feelings and emotions through play and books is another tool to set the groundwork for caring kids. When playing with your little ones, try creating scenarios that call for an empathetic response and play through some ways that help your child understand all of the feelings that lie beneath an apology.
“For instance, if the stuffed elephant steps on the bunny’s foot, help your child imagine how the bunny might have felt,” Dr. Sepehri said. “Assist them in labeling the emotions that might arise in response. Help them think about how they can repair the incident—is an apology warranted? Does the bunny need some ice for her foot? Does the elephant show that she feels remorseful?”
And while we can’t expect toddlers to understand complex emotions that we feel as adults, we can read stories with them that help them evolve their emotional library. Books can give them a child-friendly version of how to negotiate their own feelings.
“Help your child make the connection between the characters in the book and reality by asking questions about whether they’ve ever felt like the characters in the book and what would help them if they felt hurt or sad,” Dr. Sepehri said.
When all is said and done, teaching empathy is an ongoing process through modeling it and spending time learning and talking about all different emotions. Empathy isn’t flipped on with a switch one day, but slowly and surely, your little one will start showing the empathetic behaviors they’ve seen at home and learned about through their own experiences and play.
Read More: Why I Don’t Believe in Punishing My Toddler