Saying I’m Sorry: When and How to Teach Toddlers to Apologize

Posted on May 29, 2019 : Posted in Legacy Academy

You’re at a playdate with friends, and without warning your 2-year-old uses the toy car in their hand to hit another child. Feeling shocked and embarrassed, you rush over but realize you’re not really sure what to do. The other child is crying and your child seems oblivious to the problem. Situations like this are common among toddlers, as they explore their limits and begin to separate themselves from the people around them. At the same time, small children need appropriate guidance to learn how to treat others with respect and kindness. Many parents are unsure of how to deal with these conflicts, and many wonder how and when they should teach toddlers to apologize. While conflict resolution is a developing skill, there are things you can do to ease your child’s path to healthy relationships and teach toddlers to apologize.

Clearly Explain the Situation

At ages 2 and 3, your child is not yet able to empathize with others. This means that even though they were present throughout an interaction, they don’t understand how the other people involved feel. Therefore, your child relies on you to interpret the situation for them. In the above scenario, this would include getting on your child’s level and saying calmly, “Your friend is crying because you hurt them. When you hit people, it hurts them and makes them sad.” While this information may seem obvious to you, a toddler is only just learning the cause and effect that takes place in both emotional and physical situations. Explaining the situation to your child helps their brains interpret the signals around them and gives them more information to help them navigate next time.

Instead of Lecturing, Ask Your Child Questions

In a situation where you feel caught off guard or embarrassed by your child’s actions, it is easy to get caught up in those feelings and begin to lecture them. However, a lecture is highly ineffective at 2 and 3 years old. Instead, try asking your child questions to lead them to amends. For instance, ask your child to notice his friend’s facial expressions and body language. Does the friend look happy or sad? Did the friend like what happened? Then, encourage your child to consider their own feelings. Do they enjoy it when they get hurt? How does that make them feel? Finally, invite your child to make a plan. How could you make this situation better? What makes you feel better when you’re hurt? Entering into the situation with curiosity encourages your child to notice key information in the social situation and walks them through the process of realizing their mistake.

Try to Ignore Everything Else

Toddlers will make social missteps, grabbing toys and hurting others. While it feels mortifying to a parent, it is a very natural developmental step. If you focus on the “audience” around you, you may be tempted to respond with punishment rather than teaching. This response misses an opportunity to help your child grow in ways that will prevent the same situation occurring in the future. Your goal is to help your child self-regulate, making good decisions whether you are watching or not. As difficult as it can be, try to stay calm and focus on the opportunity.

Offer a Re-Do

Children want to do well, and when they are given the opportunity, they will often do everything they can to mend a relationship. After you have walked your child through identifying the problem and potential solutions, offer them a chance to make it right. For instance, say, “I know you love your friend and you don’t want them to be sad. How can we make it right?” Your child may have suggestions, based on their maturity and experience. Or they may not have an answer. In either case, guide your child through appropriate steps to make amends. “When someone hurts me, I want them to say they’re sorry. Would you like to tell your friend that you are sorry?”

Remember, when you teach toddlers to apologize, it isn’t about forcing the right words, but about guiding them to empathy. Whatever your child is ready to do (share, hug, apologize, etc.), encourage them to reach out to their friend and then accept whatever response they receive. Some children will not be ready for further contact, and it is important to respect that.

To teach toddlers to apologize, we must stay calm and in control of ourselves. It can be tempting to rush in and demand an apology, but in those moments your toddler does not understand what they are saying. Taking the time to walk through these important steps begins building a foundation of empathy and kindness for the future. If you are looking for childcare in a place that encourages strong relational skills, consider Legacy Academy Suwanee. Call or visit today for more information.