Forced Apologies: Does forcing your kid to apologize work well in the long run?

upset childHolidays are a great time for families and extended families to get together and strengthen their relationships with each other.  During the festivities parents may talk and laugh together while kids play and run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Occasionally, in the midst of a conversation, a parent or two will hear screaming accompanied by one or more children crying.  As loving parents often do, a parent may rush into the scene to find out what happened and to make things right. 

“Billy hit me” Tommy blurts out. 

“That’s because Tommy took my toy I got for Christmas” Billy retorts.

“Well, he’s not sharing” Tommy replies.

The parent, in wisdom, states, “Well it’s never okay to hit.  Now Billy, say you’re sorry.”

“But Tommy’s not sharing!”

“Well, it’s his toy and he can choose to share with you or not.  Now, say you’re sorry Billy.”

“No!  I don’t want to!”

“Billy, if you don’t say you’re sorry, then you will go to time out and you won’t get any dessert tonight” The parent says with authority.

Meanwhile, Tommy hides behind the parent with a pathetic look on his face as if he had been hit by Mike Tyson.

“This isn’t fair!”  Billy exclaims.

“Billy, say you’re sorry now!”  The parent commands.

“Sorry.” Billy says in a snood and uncompassionate tone of voice.

“Say it like you mean it or you’re going to time out right now!”  The parent demands.

“Fine, I’m sorry.” Billy states with a smidgen more of emotions that seems to be good enough to satisfy the parent.

“Good!  Now it if happens again come and tell me, but don’t hit.  Now run along and go play,” the parent says with a look of accomplishment and pleasure for solving the quarrel. 

Problem solved right?  Well, the immediate problem seems to be handled, but let’s take a look at some of the messages this situation, and other well-intentioned interventions, may send to the kids.

  •  It’s okay not to share; only hitting get’s punished. 
  •  Adults really aren’t fair so when I get even I will need to do it in a way where I won’t get caught.
  •  I can’t trust adults because they cause me pain.
  •  I should have played the victim roll first so he would have gotten in trouble rather than me.
  •  The person I look up to for love and guidance just sided with my enemy.     
  •  It’s not okay for me to hit or bully to get what I want but it is okay for a parent to bully a kid into apologizing.
  •  The act of saying the word sorry is more important than the feelings behind it. 
  •  Looking sincere is more important than being sincere.
  • If I have a problem, I need some type of parental or authoritative intervention.  I can’t solve problems on my own.

Some parents take a less dramatic, less authority driven approach.  When approaching the situation and finding out that the kids are not sharing and they are hitting each other, a parent might say something like, “What can you guys do to make things better?”  Will this phase magically make things all better?  Probably not.  The kids will most likely continue to blame each other.  Then the parent can just repeat the same phrase by saying, “I understand what happened, now what can you guys do to make things better?”  If repeating the phrase again doesn’t work a parent might follow it up with, “Would you like some ideas?” or “I’ll just have each of you sit in a different room until you figure out how you can make things better.” 

What messages might the parent in who handles it this way send to the kids?  How about:

  • I can figure out how to solve problems on my own.
  • I don’t need a parent or a governing body to solve my conflicts.
  • Hitting and not sharing are both problems that cause conflict.
  • There are many ways to make things better.
  • The word “sorry” isn’t necessarily the only or best way to make things better.
  • It is hard to make things better if I’m not sincere.
  • My parent is fair
  • My parent loves me enough to teach me to solve my problems rather than doing it for me.

Thanks for reading and I wish you the best in helping your kids learn to solve their problems in healthy ways on their own.

Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW Child and Family Therapist Gilbert and Mesa ArizonaShiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona.  He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Institute.

He provides parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculumclasses for parents of children with ADHDstep-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents.  He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.

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