It's more of an art than you may think.
The most important thing you can do to raise a gracious apologizer is—you know it’s coming—be a role model. That means apologizing to your spouse at the dinner table, yes, but also to your child when you lose it because he can’t find his glasses for the 413th time. (Try “I’m so sorry I yelled at you. I’m the grown-up here, and I bet that scared you. Let me try a do-over right now.”) “Some parents worry that by apologizing, they lose authority,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., the author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. “In fact, kids lose respect for parents who lose control and don’t apologize.”
When your three-year-old grabs another kid’s truck, your natural tendency—if only to avoid looking like the Worst Parent in the World—is to march your child over and demand, “Say you are sorry right now!” But forcing him to say the words and shaming him in the process doesn’t help, says Markham. Use the encounter to teach empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a still-fledgling skill at this age, but it is the crucial foundation of getting along with others—the whole point of apologizing in the first place. First “connect before you correct,” says Markham. Listen to your child’s side, then ask, “How do you think Lily feels right now? What can you do to make her feel better?” (He’ll probably say a hug.) If your child is still too mad or sad to feel remorse, walk over to the victim together and do the talking yourself: “We are very sorry that happened. It was hard for Sam to resist grabbing your cool toy. It must have made you upset. Here’s your truck back.” Kids will eventually learn that apologies lead to everyone feeling better and they’ll give them willingly.
By the time they’re five or so, most kids understand the social rule that if you hurt someone, you need to say you’re sorry. In fact, some have learned it so well that they try to use it as a free pass (the snooty “Sorrryyy!”). When you catch them being insincere (and, no, you won’t be around all the time), call them on it. Lauren Bloom, an interface minister, an attorney, and the author of The Art of the Apology, says to her own daughter, “Come on now, that’s not real. Let’s make this real.” Even older kids may need a cooling-off time. “My daughter used to say, ‘I can apologize later, but I can’t apologize right now,’ ” says Markham. “That’s great—apologize when you mean it.” Most important, help your child focus on ways he can repair the damage. In a study published in the journal Social Development, six- and seven-year-olds who got help rebuilding a plastic-cup tower from a researcher who had “accidentally” knocked it over felt better than did those who received only a verbal apology.
Wanting to belong to the group gives teenagers a natural incentive to apologize to their peers. To parents and siblings? Not so much. Apologizing takes a lot of what psychologists call emotional regulation—calming down and considering the other person’s feelings—something turbulent teens often struggle with. Teens are also thin-skinned and vulnerable. When a teenager hears “Get out here and apologize!” what she’s really hearing is “Admit you are a bad person.” Don’t start a power struggle of yes-you-will-no-I-won’t. If your teenager has done something egregious without owning up, like denting the car, and you know that no apology is forthcoming, (calmly) focus instead on how he plans to help fix things.
Don't practice what you preach? Find out just how you're apologizing wrong.