6 Steps to Fostering Remorse in Children

By Marcia Hall

Arguments and fights on the playground or with other children are an inevitable part of childhood, however, that doesn’t make it any easier for parents or caregivers to know how to respond when their child comes home from school with stories of disagreements. It can be even harder when you find out that your child is often the one doing some of the hurting. Here are some steps you can use to help when that happens.

  • Remember that children are frequently testing what effect their words have on others during the school years. It is common for your child to say things to friends that she has heard you or others say. She also will likely get frustrated from time to time and say what is on her mind without thinking of how it might sound. Believe it or not, your child uses these conversations as tools to learn empathy. Empathy is not really learned until at least the age of eight and is not mastered until much later.
  • Avoid accusing your child of being mean. Telling her this, or even that what she did was mean, can have a negative effect on her self-image. Instead, ask her to think about why the other child might have responded the way he did. You can help her understand that the words she said or actions she performed might have hurt the other person. By helping her work through the problem in her mind, you are creating a memory of it. When she has a memory of this discovery, she will be more likely to recall the event when faced with the same feelings and emotions.
  • Ask questions instead of making statements. When discussing the situation with your child, it is best to not assume anything or make statements about those assumptions. It is much more effective to ask your child what happened with open-ended questions. “What is it that Sally said to you?” “Did you say anything to her first?” “Why do you think she would be angry enough to do that to you?” “How did you respond when she did that?” Give your child time to answer the questions. It is also best to find a time your child is not hungry, overtired or frustrated about something else to have this chat. If at all possible, pick a moment when you both are relaxed.
  • Encourage the child to mend the relationship instead of simply telling the person she’s sorry. A sincere apology is a good thing. It can make a bad situation much better. However, sometimes, especially with children, saying that you are sorry is not enough. There are often extra steps that need to be taken before the relationship is healed. This is true of most relationships. So, instead of telling your child to go say she is sorry, tell her that she should fix the damaged relationship. If she broke the toy the other child was playing with, ask her how she could repair or replace it. If she said something unkind to him, ask her what she can say that might make him feel better. It’s likely that she’ll tell you she should say she is sorry, which is fine as long as it comes from her heart.
  • Don’t require your child to make the relationship better or punish her if she does not do it. This tactic not only takes the control out of her hands, but it also means that she may not really be sorry about it. It might even mean that you are asking her to lie about being sorry to get out of punishment for herself. A truly sincere apology cannot be forced or coerced; it must come from the child’s brain and heart. Instead, you can remind her that in the future she might want that relationship to be healthy. There might be a time that she wants to play with the other child and she definitely wants the other child to be nice to her. You can explain to her that the other child might feel so hurt that he feels the need to be mean to her.
  • Encourage your child when she makes an effort to mend the relationship, even if it is not accepted by the other child immediately. Your child’s apology or amends to the person she has wronged may not immediately be received with open arms. It is possible that the other child will continue to be upset for some time. Regardless, it is important for you to tell your child how proud you are that she took steps to heal the relationship and remind her that sometimes it takes time for her to feel better after someone has hurt her, too. It might take a few extra kind words or actions for the child to come around.

When all is said and done, the best way to teach remorse is to show it yourself. Your child is constantly watching you and desperately wants to be like you. If you are frequently apologetic when you hurt her or other people, then she will follow suit and quickly learn to do the same.

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