Forced apologies can negatively impact childhood development

Early childhood experts suggest that forcing a child to offer an apology when she does not feel sorry is not a truly useful strategy and it can have some negative, if unintended, consequences.

It is a scene familiar to most parents. Three-year-old Kaylee and her two-year-old sister Anna are in the family room playing with dolls. All of a sudden, there are high-pitched screams and the fatal words,“it’s mine! It’s mine!” Mom rushes in to discover Kaylee and Anna engaged in a tug-of-war with one of the dolls. Kaylee, the older and larger child of the two, pulls the doll out of Anna’s grasp. Anna begins to cry immediately and Kaylee turns her attention to the doll. Jennifer kneels down to see if Anna is hurt and then says to Kaylee,“stop fighting with your sister, she’s smaller than you. You are the big girl and should know better than to take Anna’s toys. Now, say you’re sorry!” Kaylee mumbles “sorry,” Anna stops crying when she gets the doll she wanted and Kaylee picks up another doll. Problem solved, right?

Not so much. Early childhood experts suggest that forcing a child to offer an apology when she does not feel sorry is not a truly useful strategy and it can have some negative, if unintended, consequences. For one thing, it can result in confusion about her feelings and sense of self.

Telling her to repeat your words about her feelings teaches her to distrust her own feelings and that it is okay to lie about her feelings. It also can encourage a child to think that speaking a few words can help her wriggle out of a difficult situation and that she does not need to examine her own behavior. Just mouthing words does not address the real issue of showing disrespect for another person. It will not lead to a change in her behavior in the future, and that is what you are truly seeking. Even more destructive is the notion that she is not loved and respected by her parents. Sometimes, when parents don’t know the details of a confrontation between children, we make assumptions about who is guilty and force a child to say they are sorry for something they didn’t do. Children feel this type of injustice very acutely and it can affect their developing sense of self-esteem.

To encourage pro-social behavior that does not lead to negative consequences, parents can try these strategies suggested by child development experts:

  • Give information about the other person that the child is not able to process on their own yet (Kostelnik, et al, 1995). This may appeal to a child’s budding sense of empathy and they may willingly show regret for the argument. You can then encourage the empathetic child to express her sincere feelings of regret to their playmate.
  • Offer other items of the same type for one or both children to choose.
  • Redirect play to another area, such as the kitchen, blocks or books.
  • Try to avoid having one child in the role of the victim and the other in the role of the “bad” child. Consistently being in the role of victim is just as damaging as the bully role.
  • Work with children to help them to learn problems solving skills and cooperation.
  • Look for teachable moments when your child is not the one in the situation but you can observe and talk about a situation involving other children, at the park or during a children’s group.

Let’s rewrite the scenario above with a new, more positive ending. Say Jennifer gently takes the contested doll into her own custody. Then, she asks what happened and listens to what the girls tell her. Because the children are so young, she suggests a solution that is fair to both of them, such as offering other dolls to the children. Jennifer might also attempt to appeal to Kaylee’s growing sense of empathy and justice by letting her know that Anna is young and still thinks everything is for her, but will probably lose interest in a minute. If mom explains “It hurt Anna’s feelings when you tried to pull the doll away. She’s crying.” If Kaylee expresses, on her own, regret for pushing Anna, then mom can encourage Kaylee to tell Anna how she feels. This time, the “I’m sorry” is authentic. Kaylee has been true to herself and learned a lesson about positive emotional growth. And mom, well, she’s super parent!

For more information on being a super parent a wonderful web site for parents and professionals related to supporting children’s social and emotional development that Michigan State University Extension recommends is Parenting Counts.

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