We all struggle with getting our kids to apologize. We want them to apologize for hurting others’ feelings, for grabbing their siblings’ or friends’ toys, for hitting, biting, or just being downright mean. Turns out that at age two, kids couldn’t care less about whether or not they hurt other people’s feelings. Even though we may force them to apologize, they neither understand the words we force them to say, nor do they understand why they need to say them. Empathy is a difficult skill to develop, even in adults. The research on empathy has proven, however, that although young kids are still unable to understand the perspective of other, they are capable of displaying empathy-related behavior. That’s why your toddler will give his brother a hug when he notices he’s sad, or your young daughter will give her friend her teddy bear when she sees her crying. While much evidence suggests that at age two, children are able to express concern at others’ distress, they can only view issues from other’s perspectives from age four to five. We may not be able to force our kids to feel sorry, but we fail them when we don’t teach them that they cannot always have their way. Kids should not be forced to apologize, but only because it makes much more sense to encourage them to apologize. Teaching kids to apologize when they hurt others teaches them that some things are not okay. There are many ways kids can be encouraged to apologize: hugs, drawing smileys, sharing favorite toys, saying “I’m sorry,” etc. But what really matters is teaching your kids to be attentive to others’ feelings from his or her youngest age.
Tips to encourage your two-year-old to apologize
Focus on the situation
Instead of focusing on the apology, focus on the situation. Explain the situation as it is. If your child has just grabbed all the cookies and refuses to share with her sister, don’t grab the cookies back and distribute them. Instead, get to her level and explain what’s just happened: “You’ve taken all the cookies and your sister now has none. She’d also like to have some cookies. Can you share the cookies with her?” When you correct gently and display warmth, your child is more likely to be empathic. If she’s still resistant, ask her to give the cookies to you. Remember that even when your child hurts another child, she’ll still think of herself as the wronged party and therefore won’t want to give back the cookies she’s just grabbed. In such a case, ask her to give the cookies to you rather than to her sister.
Focus on the wronged party
Your son has just grabbed his friend’s toy. He won’t give it back. His friend is crying his eyes out. Forcing your son to apologize, especially when he’s dead set against it, does little good. Instead, focus on the friend. You apologize. Tell the friend you understand he’s sad because his toy has been taken away. Tell him you don’t know why your child took the toy away, but you’re sure he’ll give it back.
Ignore the world around you
As it often happens, your kid will grab another kid’s toy or hurt another kid in public, forcing you to “do something” as everyone watches. When you react because you’re worried about what everyone else will think, you’re bound to get into a power struggle with your child who’s already feeling like the victim. Block everyone out except your child and the wronged party. Stay calm. When you stay calm, you show your child that it’s not a big deal and that the situation can be fixed.
Don’t make it a “moral” issue
You want your daughter to know that taking away her friends’ toys is a terrible thing to do because it hurts feelings. You want her to feel sorry. The thing is, your two-year-old just won’t get the message. And at that age, she’s self-centered and more concerned with “what’s in it for her.” That’s normal for two-year-olds. Instead of trying to make it a moral issue, keep your response short and direct: “no hitting.” You’ll have time to incorporate the moral aspect as she grows older.
It’s never too soon to start teaching kids about emotions
From “around age two”, children begin to understand that their behavior can influence others and that some actions can be changed by using emotion-regulation strategies. Although young infants only have basic emotion regulation capabilities, there is evidence that how parents talk to their children about emotions can help them develop an empathic disposition. In other words, it’s never too early to start teaching your kids about their emotions and others’ emotions. The first step is to familiarize them with different emotions by repeatedly verbalizing them: “I can see you’re sad because you’d like to keep all the cookies to yourself.” It’s also never too early to start teaching kids about others’ feelings: “Your sister is sad because she has no cookies.” Don’t worry if they don’t really get it. Remember that the more often you verbalize emotions, the easier it will be for your kids to integrate those emotions. Sometimes, teaching kids different ways to apologize can be more powerful than simply expecting an “I’m sorry.” For example: “I can see your friend is sad. Do you want to make him a drawing?” or “Do you want to give him something to make him feel better?” or “I think a hug might make him feel better.” When we do this repeatedly, children find it easier to connect certain emotions (sadness, tears) to certain actions (hugs, sharing, etc.). Two-year-olds might not have learned to feel sorry yet, but it’s never too soon to teach them about appropriate behavior.