How many times have your kids given the obligatory “I’m sorry” when we know good and well they didn’t really mean it?
You know the drill…the child does something unsavory to a sibling or friend and mom or dad mandate that an apology be issued RIGHT NOW! The child grudgingly complies with a half-hearted “I’m sorry” so he can “check it off the list” and get on with his business.
Forcing kids to apologize in the heat of the moment usually makes parents feel better but does little to help children understand the effects of their behavior on others or how to resolve conflicts in the future.
Instead, wait until everyone is calm and follow these five guidelines to teach kids how to take responsibility for their actions, develop empathy for others and learn from their mistakes:
1. Don’t “shame” or punish your child. This only makes her feel bad about herself and doesn’t help her learn for the future. Instead, be very clear that the behavior was not okay but now she has an opportunity to learn from the experience and “make it right” with the other person.
2. Avoid the temptation to lecture. Instead, use questions to help your child process what she was feeling when the infraction occurred. For example, “What/how were you feeling before you hit Jenny?” This teaches her to take responsibility for her feelings. If the child is too young to identify the feeling, you can help “label” it by saying, “It looked like you were really angry.” We want to reinforce that feelings are okay, however, the action that followed was not.
3. Connect the dots. Tie your child’s feeling to her action and the effect it had on the other person. “When you felt angry and hit Jenny, how do you think that made her feel?” This teaches that her actions have an impact on other people.
4. Make amends. Focus on solutions to “make it right” with the injured party by asking, “What can you do to make it right with Jenny?” That may be a verbal apology if it’s truly heart-felt, but children typically learn more by taking some action to make the other person feel better – perhaps writing a note, drawing a picture, or showing some other act of kindness.
5. Role-play the “re-do.” Don’t miss the opportunity to help your child learn to make a better choice next time. Ask, “If you could have a re-do, what would you do differently when you were angry at Jenny?” Brainstorm more constructive ways to handle the situation next time and role-play them. She’ll be more likely to use positive conflict resolution tactics next time if she’s had the chance to practice them with you.
Developing empathy and learning helpful conflict resolution strategies takes time and using these five guidelines will jump-start the learning by reinforcing that:
• we all make mistakes and that’s how we learn to do better in the future
• feelings are okay although some actions are not
• taking responsibility for your actions and making it right with the other person is an important part of being a friend or part of a family.