When I was a kid, it wasn't common place for parents, or adults in general to apologize to kids. There seemed to be this sense of "I am in charge" so I don't need to apologize. As if acknowledging a mistake and owning up to it meant that you no longer had the upper hand.
Let me assure you that this isn't the case. One of the most important things I tell parents is that your children's are watching you. They learn more from watching how you behave and handle a situation than they do from what you tell them.
Keeping this in mind, think about this scenario. Your child and their sibling are fighting over the TV remote. One child loses it and hits the other. You get involved, referee the situation and demand that the child "in the wrong" apologize to the other. Makes sense, right? As parents one of our goals when raising our children is that they take responsibility for the actions and work to make it right. But if we as parents never do this, how can we expect our children to.
There are a lot of different views of the need for children to apologize. My take on it may be different from what you are used to hearing. I do not think we should force our kids to apologize. Think about it. What are our children learning when a parent is hovering over them demanding that they apologize? They are learning that they just need to say it, not mean it. This is why we end up getting that grumble of an apology that clearly screams "I AM NOT REALLY SORRY". If we want our kids to apologize because they felt, or more importantly know that they did something wrong, we want the apology to be genuine and to be initiated without any prompting or demanding.
So how do we do this? Well, lots of patience, repetition, and modeling for our children. Remember our children are learning and will make mistakes over and over as they learn to navigate relationships and the world. Three steps to working on apologizing are:
1) Parents take the lead: The first step is for us to apologize to our children (and others) when we messed up. WE need to show our children that it is ok to make mistakes and own them. it is up to us to show them when, where, and how to apologize through our own apologies.
2) Instead of demanding an apology encourage your child to make it better. It can be hard to say "I'm sorry" but taking action to make it better may be easier. Children avoid saying I am sorry for all kinds of reasons and getting in a power struggle over it isn't going to help. Encouraging your child to make the situation better (to right the wrong) is a good first step. After all, it is important in life not just to apologize but to work to mend the relationship with the person that was hurt by our words or actions. Kids may do this in a variety of ways. In my house this can mean getting ice when someone accidentally got hurt or inviting the sibling you were just mean to to play or watch a show. How they choose to reach out is up to them.
3) If you feel like you need to revisit the event, wait some time and do it when everyone has calmed down and the event has passed and everyone has regrouped. If we revisit the situation too soon our kids may get overloaded and just shut down. At this point they will be unable to hear or learn the lesson because they are emotionally flooded.
I can't emphasize enough that it is really how we as the parents handle apologizing that makes the biggest impact for our children. An added bonus, when we apologize to our children it lets them know that they and their feelings matter to us.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parent Coach at Mighty Oak Parenting.