All children make mistakes. It is a part of growing up. A parent’s job is to teach children about making mistakes and what that means.
Sometimes children get angry and lash out; it too is part of growing up. A parent’s job is also to work with children and their emotions and help them manage what they are feeling.
Even though I hear parents saying, “Say ‘You’re sorry!'” to their kids all the time, sorry is not a catch-all word that works with both of these situations.
When “sorry” works:
If a child makes a mistake, or accidentally does something like drops something breakable, bumps into someone, or spills their drink, then they probably are remorseful and “sorry” is an appropriate response. So teach your children to say sorry when they have accidentally done something wrong.
When “sorry” doesn’t work:
When a child gets angry or frustrated and acts out by pushing another child, or hitting their parent, or pinching their friend, it is highly unlikely that they are remorseful. They are angry and they are acting out in their anger. Teaching them to say “sorry” in this situation, teaches them that “sorry” solves the problem.
But “sorry” didn’t solve the problem, the other child or person has been hurt and your child probably still feels angry. This is the time for parents to teach children about emotions and problem solving.
First: Help the child or children calm down. (This is something that can be taught when the child is calm and then reinforced when they are angry, but that is another post) Look them in the eye and then talk about taking deep breaths and then take a deep breath with them. This will begin the process and allow the child to start problem solving.
Second: Talk about the problem: what happened? And ask all of the people involved.
Third: Find a solution. The adult can offer some solutions (I like to offer really unattractive solutions like “How about we put the toy away since it is causing problems? That’s one solution” ) and then the children can come up with solutions. After a few ideas have been offered, a solution can be chosen.
If your child later feels bad about the whole situation, they can then apologize to the hurt party. But sometimes I see children who want a toy, hit the other child to get the toy, and then say “sorry” as they walk away with it only because they have been taught to say “sorry” after every transgression.
This way takes a little bit longer but it teaches children emotional regulation, empathy and problem solving which could possibly be three of the most important life skills we need.