When sorry seems to be the hardest word.

We’ve all been there with our children – watched as they’ve snatched a toy from a child, or heard them call another child a horrible name or…the list is endless. Whatever the misdemeanour is, or whatever wrongdoing has been committed, there does appear to be a standardized course of action that takes place – an interaction between parent and child that somewhere along the line involves the word “sorry” needing to be uttered from a remorseful child. In an ideal world this is said without a prompt – brilliant! No battles, no refusal, no flippant, almost singalong “Soorreee”. Unfortunately as we all know, the ideal world often doesn’t exist in the land of the little ones.

Now this isn’t a blog to say you should, or should not get the sorry – that really is up to you. What we are talking about is when sorry becomes part of the battle, an extension of the original misbehaviour, or even worse when it takes over and becomes the only focus after the initial crime is long forgotten. How do we move on from the impasse that can develop when a child refuses to say sorry, or encourage a sorry that shows some sign of meaning rather than just a ‘get out of jail free’ card. In other words – there can be pitfalls to the all-important sorry!

So what are we wanting from the sorry, why is it so important? There can be a number of reasons. If the behaviour involves another child there is often a need to show the other parent that you have taken action, that your child has been reprimanded, made aware of their actions and is indeed ‘sorry’, with the other child’s feelings being acknowledged. The sorry can also act as a reset button – an end to the incident which enables everyone to move on – hopefully with no cuts, bruises or broken bones! Finally it can give us as parents the hope that our child truly understands what they have done wrong and will never repeat the behaviour again, feeling true regret and remorse. These are all good motives – but does it always go this way? What do we do when your child is standing in front of you with their mouth clamped shut, refusing to utter the one word that will make everything ok? You know there is no way they are going to give in and you have an endless list of things to do and eventually you were hoping to sit down with a cheeky glass of wine and have a bit of peace yourself that evening! Who breaks the deadlock? Alternatively, what do we do when our children look us cheerily in the eye, sing “Soorree” in A minor and then skip off merrily, ready to maim again!

For all of us “sorry” can be hard. I know I find it difficult to say at times – partly because I am always right (mmmm…) and partly because admitting we have done wrong is tough and shaming – especially if it is a public shaming, in front of others. We all get angry and make mistakes – do we find it easy to immediately calm down, say sorry and more importantly feel it and move on? And yet we expect our children to. When we really think about it – are we being realistic?

So on that note – here are some tips – hopefully to lift some of the pressure off us and our children.

  • Firstly, what are we really wanting – is it just the word – or are we looking for a change in behaviour and for it not to be repeated? It can be helpful to look at ways your child shows they are sorry. It can be a cuddle, or a sharing of a toy, or a need to be close to you – whatever it is – it is still sorry. It resets the moment and stops the focus being on one word. We always say actions speak louder than words and in this case it is absolutely true. Teaching your child to sign the word sorry can be really helpful. Offering sorry visually can be so much easier for a child and far less shaming.
  • Praise them for the sorry – however it is offered. Be specific with the praise, “That was a lovely way to sorry”, focuses the praise on sorry. There may still be a consequence for the original behaviour, but praise encourages the sorry to be repeated and hopefully given without a prompt in the future.
  • Children often refuse to say sorry as a way of attention seeking. We know children love attention – they understand this more than we do sometimes. A parent may be standing in front of them, insisting on a sorry – but at least it’s all about them, not a sibling, or another child. Refusal can result in a power struggle, which can set up a pattern which is difficult to break. Step away from the argument – see to the other child let them know you are sorry that they have had a toy snatched/been hurt. Wait until your own child has calmed down and look for the sorry in a different way. When the sorry comes, or the cuddle, or the sign or whatever it is – acknowledge it. If it never comes, there can still be a consequence for the original behaviour if appropriate. 
  • If you make a mistake – as we all do, it’s important for your child to hear you apologise, it’s how children learn. They watch, observe and then copy. Modelling sorry always encourages a child to use it themselves. Talk generally about feelings – how hard it is when you have done something wrong and how difficult it can be to say sorry. 
  • Try not to feel too pressurized by others to insist on the public sorry. I know this is easy to say and it helps us feel less embarrassed but if it’s going to bring on a refusal or a ‘get out of jail free card’ sorry – is there really any point? If it’s offered willingly – fantastic – but if not, we can get ourselves into a whole load of trouble.

Finally, if you are the parent of a child that has been wronged – go easy on the other parent and the child. Is it really the most important thing of all for the word sorry to be used? Is the child showing you they are sorry, but in another way? What would help you if you were in that parent’s shoes, feeling acutely embarrassed at what their child has done – and as we all know tomorrow it could be you… 

Sarah and Michelle run a company called Purple Parenting, offering positive behaviour support through individual work, groupwork and workshops. Email purpleparenting@gmail.com to arrange your free telephone consultation to help with sharing, play fighting, sleep, tantrums, fussy eating, anger, anxiety, aggression and more.