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OOPS! Teaching Kids the Art of Apologizing

Written by Sabrina Silverstein, Senior Learning and Impact Advisor

Tell your brother you’re sorry. It’s time to apologize… Say sorry for…. Do any of these phrases sound familiar? Apologies are important for children’s social and emotional development. They help kids understand that everyone makes mistakes and that there are consequences for our actions while developing empathy for others. But although we often tell young children to say they’re sorry, they aren’t really sure what they are saying or why.

The next time a situation calls for an apology, try out this OOPS! strategy. Young children are concrete learners. They learn best when they clearly understand, relate to their own lives, and see examples. Here’s how we can help!

One (two, three, four, five)

First, pause. When a child makes a mistake, help them count to five while breathing in and out. This allows children to stop before their emotions get so strong that it is hard to talk with them. What if Sierra knocks her friend Max’s building down or snatches a ball from his hand? Help both children pause: “Hold on, let's count to five” or “Let’s breathe for a minute.” Sometimes, a child needs time alone before they can be with the other child; that’s ok! Allow kids to take the time they need.

Open the conversation

What happened? It’s important to identify what happened from each child’s viewpoint to get all of the information. Young children understand concrete examples. Ask them to state what happened and help them be specific, “She made me mad” isn’t enough. “She made me mad because she took my ball” is much clearer for a child. If a child needs help verbalizing what happened, model for them: “It looks like taking your ball without asking made you mad.”

Make sure you have the full story. Open the conversation to everyone involved so that they share their viewpoint and feel heard and valued. Sierra may have taken the ball from Max’s hand because she was playing a game and he didn’t know the rules!


Check in to see how everyone is feeling. Children are passionate about how they feel during tense situations. How did Max feel after Sierra snatched the ball? How did Sierra feel? Help children name their feelings: “Max, I wonder if you are feeling upset because you wanted to play with the ball and worried that Sierra might take another toy from you?” “Sierra, I imagine you were feeling excited to play a game with the ball and now maybe unsure because you don’t like to see Max hurt. And frustrated because you want to keep playing!”

So, now what?

You have paused, opened the conversation, and identified feelings. Now, how do we help our children take responsibility, and help someone feel better? Is there a way Sierra can show Max that she cares about him? Can she give him the ball back? Bring him another ball? How can Max help the situation? Suggest taking turns. Here are some questions to ask:

  • I wonder how you might make Max feel better?
  • Is there anything you can do to make Max less upset?

Sometimes, after these discussions, a child may choose to apologize. Instead of running away shouting “Sorry!” over their shoulder and not meaning it, they now understand the situation more clearly and are able to empathize with their friend. You may want to model words for Sierra:“I’m sorry I took the ball. I really wanted to play with it and didn’t want to wait, but I see I hurt your feelings, so I’m sorry.”

Other times, a child will not say that they are sorry. This is ok. The most important aspect is for the child to start to understand how others feel, begin to develop empathy, and understand how they might react differently if faced with the same situation again.

Making a mistake can be a learning opportunity for both kids and adults. If we model for and teach children when they are young, then they may be more empathetic and problem-solve more effectively as adults. Apologizing becomes easier when kids take responsibility and learn how to rectify their actions. As we help our children, we may also help ourselves!

Read some books together about saying you’re sorry and role-play how to apologize!

by David Shannon

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