1. Sometimes, kids can't empathize with others till you help them understand how the others feel. Here's a typical situation in my house:
Five-year-old pushes 3-year-old. Three-year-old starts to cry. Five-year-old looks at me with nothing resembling guilt, but she does look scared of how I'm going to react. Then we have the following conversation:
Me: Look at your sister crying. What do you think she feels?
Me: Yeah, sad. She feels bad that her big sister pushed her.
Five-year-old (starts to look sad and guilty).
Me: What could you say to her if you feel bad?
Five-year-old: I'm sorry. (Gives sister a hug, smiles, feels better.)
Young kids need to be guided through empathizing before they can understand what others are feeling. And once they understand, they often feel bad. But this doesn't mean they are mature enough to understand that they will resolve these feelings of guilt and/or shame by owning their actions and apologizing. As a parent, you can give your child a tool for making him or herself feel better after hurting someone else, and the tool is saying I'm sorry.
2. Sometimes, kids feel a lot of shame when they hurt someone, so they push the incident out of consciousness or lie and deny it and SEEM like they don't care.\.. but they really do. Here, you can read about guilt versus shame. Here's an example:
Five-year-old, who is usually devoted to her baby brother, bites him in a fit of anger when he destroyed her special book. Baby wails like a dying wildebeest. When I come in, 5-year-old looks terrified and pale.
Me: Oh my God, is this a BITE MARK ON THE BABY?
Five-year-old: Yeah, but, but... I didn't do that.
Me: Get into time out now, you bit the baby!
Me: Why in the world did you bite the baby?
Five-year-old (sobbing): I didn't do it.
Me: Look, you did it. You feel so bad because you seem embarrassed that you bit the baby. That was not good, especially since baby trusts you, because you're usually so nice to him.
Me: You seem like you're feeling guilty because you bit the baby, so you could go apologize to him and tell him you won't bite him anymore.
Five-year-old: Will he be scared of me now?
Me: No, I don't think so. Try to apologize.
Five-year-old, to baby: I'm so sorry, baby. I will never ever hurt you again.
3. Like smiling, which is shown to make people happy, sometimes apologizing can make you see someone else's perspective. Apologizing opens up the conversation, and allows another person to feel validated and therefore repairs the relationship. Like this:
Three-year-old colors on 5-year-old's picture. Five-year-old cries. I say to 3-year-old, "That was not nice. What can you say?" Three-year-old says, "I'm sorry." Five-year-old stops crying and everything is repaired. This teaches the 3-year-old a couple of good lessons:
- Even if I wasn't sorry, saying sorry fixed this relationship.
- If you mess up and say sorry, people are nicer to you.
- I have the power to heal relationships with my words and actions.
and possibly even:
- Hmm, I guess I am sorry. But I didn't think of it on my own, since I'm three.
And with older kids, you can explain more of this thought process. So let's say your 13-year-old is acting out and exploring having a "shocking" persona. She just told Grandma, loudly, before Easter Sunday, that she doesn't believe in God anymore. Grandma gets very upset. What should you do? After discussing this situation with your child, and helping her empathize with Grandma, one course of action may be choosing to apologize. She wouldn't of course have to say she does believe after all, but she might want to say she's sorry that Grandma is upset (or, more honestly, that she purposefully chose to shock and upset Grandma). And that is a good lesson about saying things for shock value, and how it can hurt other people, and how to repair relationships.
For more on how to communicate with kids, pre-order Dr. Rodman's book How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, visit Dr. Psych Mom, and join Dr. Rodman on Facebook or Twitter @DrPsychMom.
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