Picture this scene. You’re at a playdate. Your two-year old is happily demolishing a block tower with a plastic truck, and you’re just starting to get into some much needed chit-chat with your hot cup of coffee. Then out of the corner of your eye, you see another child advancing quickly towards your child. Your child raises the plastic car they’re holding. You’re too far away to do more than shout “Noooo!” as the toy is smashed into the other child’s head. The child immediately starts wailing, as your toddler stands by looking slightly bemused.
What do we do in these situations? Our instinct is usually to go with some version of “He’s hurt! Say sorry!” After all, we don’t want to raise heartless bullies! And let’s be honest – a lot of our reaction is also tied up with our own embarrassment. What if the people watching think we’re horrible parents?
But if our goal is to help our children to develop genuine empathy and grow into kind, compassionate people, we might have to rethink the hasty forced apology.
While we’re all hardwired to be social beings, capable of relating to and responding to other’s emotions, empathy is a complex skill. For a child to empathise, they must first understand that people have different feelings and perspectives. They must then be able to take another person’s perspective, recognise and name feelings, and regulate their own emotional responses. This is a highly sophisticated process and the ability to empathise develops throughout the course of childhood (and arguably the rest of our lives).
So what do we do when our child hurts another? Read on for five steps to responding to a situation in a way that fosters true kindness and empathy in the long run.
1. Keep everyone safe
When children hit, they’re sending us a clear message that they need our help to control that impulse, and keep everyone safe. This may look like physically blocking or restraining a child that’s hitting, or separating both children. Remember, safety is the priority, and our intention is not to shame or punish. Children need us to set clear physical boundaries when impulses and behaviours are out of control.
2. Stay calm and don’t worry
The fact that your child isn’t immediately making amends, isn’t a sign that you’re raising a mini-sociopath. Empathy is a complex skill that takes time and experience to develop. Young children especially, are not developmentally ready to fully comprehend their actions, let alone verbalise or own the words of an apology. Generally, children can always do with a little more time to process a situation as they don’t absorb or respond as automatically as adults do. When we can refrain from rushing to ‘fix’ the situation, we give both the children and ourselves space to respond from a place of less reactivity and more groundedness.
3. Don’t force an apology
When we ask our children to say sorry, we wind up putting the spotlight on our child, instead of helping them focus on the feelings of the other person. And when we repeatedly force them to say the words, they end up with a powerful sense of “I’m a bad kid”. This emotion is shame. No one can apologise, much less feel empathy towards another, when they’re frozen in shame. The way that we unfreeze them from shame is to first connect, acknowledging that they are fundamentally good, and can feel for others. This could sound like “You must have been so mad when you hit. I know you don’t like hurting other people. Shall we check on her to see if she’s ok?”
4. Be your child’s voice
Instead of making your child parrot words which may not mean anything, focus on demonstrating what empathy looks like by being their voice. For example, say: “I’m so sorry you got hurt. Are you feeling ok?” By expressing concern for the other child, this allows your child to observe what a genuine apology and real empathy looks like in practice. You don’t have to reinforce the lesson by turning around and asking “See? We say sorry when we hurt someone”. Trust that your child is absorbing the experience and move on.
5. Develop awareness and problem-solving
Once things have calmed down and if your child is developmentally ready, you may be able to invite your child to problem solve with you. This may sound like a simple invitation such as “I wonder what would make her feel better?” or “Perhaps she might need a plaster?” This should be a genuine desire to make the other person feel better, and not a way of assuaging our own guilt. For instance, if the other child is crying and just needs to be comforted by her mother, we probably don’t want to be asking her over and over if she’s ok.
You may worry that not forcing a child to say “I’m sorry” means we’re ‘letting them get away’ with things. This isn’t the case at all. We’re teaching them that bad behaviour doesn’t make you a bad person, and that repair is always possible. Children will internalise our calm boundaries, modelled apologies and problem-solving over time, and eventually, be able to come up with a sincere apology all on their own.
By Justina Chen
Justina is mum to a joyful 5-year-old and co-founder of Wonder Village, a platform for high-quality home-based childcare providers. She believes that raising children begins from a place of deep wonder and respect for the child in front of us.