An apology is more than a word: Effects of apologies on children’s emotions

Most adults, including parents and teachers, have a tendency of trying to sustain an aura of perfection before people who are younger than them, such as children or their students. Research coins this behavior to the persistent idea that appearing apologetic to a child may lead to loss of dignity, authority or status. As such, many adults won’t admit fault before a child, coerced by the fear of appearing weak.

What many might not know is that on the contrary, apologizing to a child and vice versa (a child apologizing to the adult) elicits some effects on their emotions. For instance, an apology is an important factor in building (rebuilding relationships) and mutual respect. It’s an important way of making a child understand that even adults can make mistakes and that you are sensitive to the feelings in your child, whenever you treat them unfairly.

Similarly, it’s important to nature a remorseful attitude in your child, which means they will be ready to apologize to you and/or their peers whenever they do wrong, without coercion. Apologies can be associated with a variety of effects on a child’s emotions.


Models remorse and forgiveness

Children learn and acclimate to different behavioral responses through interactions with those around them. Adults have thus a big role to play in modeling virtues in children who look upon them on what to do in particular situations.

If we want to develop remorsefulness and willingness to forgive in our children, we must be role models in these. This means, whether you had a tantrum after a stressful day at work, you accidentally broke a child’s toy or failed on a promise to the child, it’s important to quickly tender your apology, making it sincere and straightforward. This will build a remorseful child, who will be unwilling to cause pain to others, and readily apologize for doing wrong.

Building or Rebuilding Trust

A sincere apology helps the child rebuild trust with others. It’s a way of recognizing that you have done wrong, though you did not mean to. Without it, the child might develop the feeling that you did it to deconstruct them, just because there is nothing s/he can do. Likewise, the child will develop an attitude, a tendency or a norm of doing wrong and concealing/denying his/her mistakes to you or to others.

Consequently, there will always be a tendency of suspicion between you and the child whereby you may never trust the child even if s/he claims to have no involvement in a particular wrong done. Similarly, the child will always suspect your intensions as bad even if you meant well, just because you have built a strong mistrust out of behavior to deny a wrong done.

Encourage empathy

A sincere apology makes the child believe that you feel their pain. Similarly, encouraging the child to acknowledge his/her mistakes and apologizing to others develops empathy in them, which is the ability to associate with the feelings of others.

However, if you have a tendency of ‘sticking to your guns’ after hurting your child or student, then it’s likely that you will model a bad attitude against apologizing, which implies that the child will feel small, weak or belittled by apologizing to others when caught in the wrong. Eventually, the child will be comfortable hurting others since s/he is insensitive to their feelings.

Make amends, solve problems.

A sincere apology is an indication of intension to repair hurt feelings and fix the problem. Apologizing to your child/student helps them understand that though the act led to hurt, it was not intended for it. In response, such an act may help the child de-escalate his/her anger and intensions to revenge against those who hurt them.

For instance, by asking a child to apologize for doing wrong to another, then hugging him/her them, returning a toy that s/he may have grabbed from him/her and promising not to do it again,  the parent/the teacher helps the children forgive each other, and deconstruct intensions of revenge, which would escalate the conflict further.

A child who learns how to resolve conflicts through apologizing is likely to develop positive virtues such as peacefulness, kindness, love and patience, and negative emotions which might elicit vengefulness and hurtful verbal exchanges with peers and adults even at slightest triggers.

While apologies may elicit positive behaviors and emotional results in children, it’s also important to know that a sincere apology must be intrinsically sourced, rather than coerced.  Coercing a child into offering an apology may fail to elicit the right emotions, and comfort to the victim. Furthermore, it means that the wrongdoer learned little and just feigned remorse.

Effects of forced apology

Experts in child psychology posit that forcing children to apologize without allowing them time to identify their mistakes and feel remorseful is counterproductive. Sometimes, this might even lead to negative, unintended consequences. For instance, a child who is forced to apologize may elicit feelings of confusion and low sense of self.

S/he is likely to feel unloved and not understood by the teacher or the parent. In any case, the child might feel oppressed or discriminated due to not believing that s/he committed a wrong. The ultimate consequence is lowering of his/her ego, which might then conflict with his/her self-esteem.  In any case, this might not lead to a desired change of behavior.

It’s thus always important to first calmly seek to know the details of the row between, including the source of the altercation. This will help recognize the guilty party and take the right steps. Next, ensure that evidence is available and using the right method, ensure that the guilty party acclaims to his/her mistakes.

Before ‘saying sorry’, it’s important to develop a sense of empathy to the child, making him/her imagine that s/he was the victim of the same hurtful act. This will help develop a sense of remorse, after which s/he will be sincerely willing to apologize while avoiding eliciting feelings of injustice or belittlement in either of the parties.


Last Updated on September 19, 2021