Don’t force kids to say sorry—try this instead, parenting expert says

“Go tell your brother you’re sorry!” Most parents have said this once or twice or a hundred times, only to be met with dissatisfaction all around — they don’t feel their kids learned much, the kid who “did something wrong” likely didn’t learn much, and the child who was “wronged” still wants justice, or at least validation. So what’s a well-meaning parent to do instead of forcing the whole ‘I’m sorry’ thing?

According to Dr. Chelsey Hauge-Zavaleta, a positive parenting coach, there’s an easy and specific parenting swap you can try instead. In her viral TikTok, she says to give them an action to do instead.

“I have them do an action. Go get an ice pack. Get a stuffy. What do you think would help? I’m facilitating an action that is repair,” she says. “What I do not want is for a child to say ‘I’m sorry’ in that yucky voice — they get nothing out of it, it doesn’t feel authentic to the child that was hurt, and the child who did the thing learns nothing.”

She adds that it might feel to the child you are forcing to say sorry might not really understand, and might not feel you understand their side. It not only disrupts their regulation, but can damage your relationship with that child, she says.

The walk to retrieve something has extra secret benefits, including a sensory break and experience for the child taking a walk, probably to another room to get something. “They’re moving, and moving the emotion through. During that time I’m comforting the one who’s hurt.”

It’s not that saying sorry has no place in the conversation. Sometimes she models saying sorry when they are handing the item over, without trying to make a kid do it. “I care about the action of repair…I care about the child who has had the impact and hurt someone is able to do something.” She says this relieves the “he said she said” vibe that there might be a whole other side of the story, because often there is. “Ideally that child is feeling better and can get to play together.”

Finally, sometimes she has a repairing conversation later, such as at bedtime, recognizing the frustration especially if kids are always “getting into it” with someone. “For that child, I have to hold hope.” She talks to them about her hope for the next day about how they will be able to do it the next day and it will get easier. “That really wears on a child’s soul. Give them the supports to make the shift.”

As one commenter adds, “I heard a mom at a park once say ‘We need to say sorry with our words and our actions.’ Used it ever since.”