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Monday, July 23, 2012

'Sorry' doesn't fix it: getting to the bottom of children's fights

"Excuse me? That boy over there, the one in the green shirt. He needs to say sorry to the boy in the blue shirt. Make sure he does it."

I bit my tongue, hard. The total stranger who had wandered through the preschool room on her way to a meeting next door got a raised eyebrow and silence from me, in response to her brusque demand. It wasn't just her tone of voice that got my back up, nor the fact that she'd taken it upon herself to start issuing orders to me without so much as introducing herself.

No, what really riled me was her complete confidence in her own take on the situation- confidence that she could just take a snapshot of what had gone amiss between two children she didn't  even know, and instantly solve it by forcing one of the children to use a magic word.


Sadly, it's a common mistake. Parents and carers often fall into the trap of looking for a formula that saves them having to think all the time. We're busy. We're stressed. Analysing every single conflict situation that comes up with our children is sometimes difficult, sometimes downright impossible, given the other demands on our time and the frequency of the conflicts. We're hanging out for a short cut, a magic solution.

Siblings or peers fighting? Someone must be at fault. Therefore someone needs to apologise. If we can work out who's to blame and make that sorry happen, it's all sorted.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Let me unpack what actually happened in this particular case, and that might give you some clues on why forcing a 'sorry' is always a complete waste of time and doesn't solve a thing.

For starters, we're talking about two 4-year-old children with very specific and difficult issues. One, 'Joel', comes from a background of sustained dysfunction, including a parent 'doing time' and normalised low-level violence. The other, 'Piri', is a foster child from a background where relationships have been temporary and contact with other children has been minimal; he has difficulty communicating with and being accepted by other children.

Piri desperately wants to be included in Joel's play, and due to his poor social understanding he's been clumsily invading Joel's games all year without much clue about what's going on. He's still in Joel's face, despite the teachers gently intervening and trying to explain that you can't force someone to be your friend.

When children don't understand how to
enter play, they may snatch, hit, break
constructions or throw things...
Joel's over it. In his family, the way to express displeasure with someone is to hit them. It's hard for the teachers to undo that modelling in the few days a week that Joel attends care, but they're working on it. Believe me- they're working on it.

Ms Know-it-all walked through the room at the exact moment that Joel belted Piri on the arm, hard enough to make him cry. Her snapshot was that Joel was to blame and must be forced to apologise.

Now, think about that for a moment. What exactly is going on here?

Is assigning blame helpful?

Will one word fix it?

Now, I am not for a moment condoning the violence. But what has happened here is a collision of complex behavioural problems which do not have short term solutions. By forcing Joel to say sorry, we're actually making the problem worse. His irritation with and resentment of Piri's behaviour increases, because he now feels misunderstood and disapproved of as well as annoyed. We have only dealt with the symptom of his discontent, not the cause.

It is not his fault that he has been taught that violence is a solution. By high-handedly forcing him to apologise for what he sees as normal behaviour, we have taught him nothing except that he is different from us and doesn't fit in with our classroom culture. That's called alienation.

We haven't made him want to fit in.

Not only that- the very attempt to force a child to say a sorry that they don't feel in their heart is a battle not worth fighting. Joel might just refuse; what are we going to do then? Alienate him further by putting him in 'time out'? This aligns him even more strongly with his dysfunctional family and their methods of resolving disputes. He then feels that he 'belongs' in the classroom community less than ever; his norms are not accepted or even discussed. He hugs his feelings of anger and disenfranchisement closer to his chest. He is even less likely to adhere to our behavioural guidelines.

Worse still, he might say the 'sorry' without feeling it, then notice that the adult stops bothering him after he says it- and file it away as a magic word that allows him the best of both worlds. He can hit first when he's angry or frustrated to release his uncomfortable feelings, and say sorry later to mollify the adults.

That is a lesson in manipulation that you don't want to teach. We all know adults who constantly apologise for their bad behaviour, then tomorrow or next week do exactly the same thing again. Where do you think that starts?

To change behaviour, we have to start from where the person is- not from where the teacher is. We do this by acknowledging the feelings behind Joel's actions and narrating what happened.

Here's the sort of script I use regularly with Joel and other children who talk with their fists- after saying "STOP!" and comforting Piri, of course.

"Piri kept taking the ball you were playing with. Then you hit him and now he's crying. Did you feel angry that he was taking the ball all the time?"

Listen to the answer and respond to it authentically before going on with your agenda.

"I understand that you would feel frustrated and angry. I would probably feel like that too if I was you. But you know, Joel, it's not okay to hit him. We've talked about that before. You have to find another way to show him you're angry. If you use words instead of using your hands, he will understand better and you won't get into trouble."

With a child like Joel who has had no modelling of this strategy, you then need to model actual phrases.

"You could put on an angry face like this (demonstrate) and say loudly 'STOP taking the ball. I don't like it.' Can you give that a try?"

If the child is receptive, it's even possibly to introduce the 'sorry' strategy.

"You can say sorry for hitting without being sorry for feeling angry. It's okay to feel angry. It would make things a bit better if you went over to Piri and said 'sorry for hitting you'. I will go and explain to Piri why you were angry, but you are the only one who can say sorry for the hitting."

That approach separates the feelings from the actions, and avoids backing an angry child into a corner; it gives him a way of conforming to social expectations without having to swallow his emotions, and it gives him agency in solving the problem.

Don't expect success the first time, but if you keep putting the strategy on the table it may just get picked up some day- and then it will be meaningful.

Ideally of course, the intervention with modelling would occur before things got out of hand. If I'd noticed Joel becoming frustrated, I would have used narration and modelling earlier and slightly differently:

"Joel, it looks like Piri is taking the ball and you don't like it. You could look at him and say 'Piri, please stop taking the ball.' "

I've used that strategy several times with complete success with Joel- he has instantly copied what I said, and the other child has responded positively and stopped the annoying behaviour. BUT it will take many, many repetitions before Joel comes up with this strategy spontaneously.

Of course, Piri needs support to change his behaviour too. He needs to have strategies to join a game modelled to him.

"Piri, you keep taking the ball that Joel is playing with. Look at his face. He looks like he's getting angry. If you want to play ball with Joel you need to ask him with words, not with your hands. You could say 'Joel, can I please play ball with you?'. He might say no, but he might say yes. You don't know till you try."

You can see that many, many more words than just a lip-service 'sorry' are needed to make any impact on these children's behaviour. But what about children who don't have these special behavioural needs?

Even children from secure, loving backgrounds will not learn a thing from a forced 'sorry', because the feelings and circumstances that sparked the misbehaviour have been ignored. Recently I worked with two very bright, well-spoken and much-loved sisters aged 5 and 6 who had a severe case of sibling rivalry. When they came to shouting or insults or blows- and they did, every day- I fell back on the same strategies that I described above.

I never asked these girls to apologise for their feelings, though sometimes it was hard to listen to the elder one say "I never wanted a sister!" and to watch the other provoke and provoke and PROVOKE her, out of a desire to be accepted. Those children are not sorry for the way they feel. That IS the way they feel right now. What they need is not censure, but understanding and acceptance of the feelings that overwhelm them- and that's what I tried to give them.

The unacceptable behaviour, of course, must be separated from the feelings. We can forbid certain responses to feelings without forcing a child to push down real emotions. The emotions must always be acknowledged if we are to change the behaviour.

Puppets are a great way to help children talk
about their feelings- they can act out the behaviours
and identify the emotions much more easily from
a little distance.
Then we need to help the children develop strategies to avoid conflict, and we must provide constant modelling of a more acceptable way of expressing and releasing those feelings

For example, some children do enjoy playing alone and become extremely frustrated when others try to join them; you will find this particularly amongst gifted children, whose game 'rules' may be too sophisticated for their age peers to understand, and amongst talented children (such as those with advanced sporting abilities) who may want to practise a skill without interruption (I would put Joel in this category). Those children will not be served well by a blanket rule of 'everything must be shared' and need to have some sort of refuge where they can develop their games uninterrupted. Perhaps defining a 'solo play' area and a 'shared play' area could be helpful here.

Children who say hurtful things to one another- I'm thinking of "I never wanted a sister!"- can be encouraged to describe the feeling  they have and the reason for it, rather than making sweeping statements. "I'm angry because this is my birthday present and I don't want to share it!" is a much more useful statement, both for communicating a child's needs and for allowing the parent or carer to try to meet them.

That's just one example; every case of conflict is a little different and has its own subtle nuances that only the parent or the long-term carer can detect. There IS no one-word solution to conflict; a passer-by can't solve anything by forcing a formulaic apology.

It actually puzzles me that anyone thinks a forced 'sorry' works. If Israel and Palestine were forced to say 'sorry' to each other, the war would not end- we know that- because there are long-term, deep-seated emotions involved which haven't been dealt with. And we all know how difficult it is to apologise sincerely to our partner or family for shouting or saying cruel things to them, when we're still feeling angry or disappointed with them over whatever provoked our rage.

So why do we expect the forced 'sorry' strategy to work for our children?


  1. Bookmarking this one, so many great examples of what to say and how to say it! And this is just brilliant- "To change behaviour, we have to start from where the person is- not from where the teacher is. We do this by acknowledging the feelings behind Joel's actions and narrating what happened." BINGO! If all adults (including me) could just remember this one point, we'd all be more capable of being helpful guides for children.

    1. Thank you, Lisa! The strategy has certainly served me well- it can be like magic at times, especially when I get the timing right and know enough background.

  2. It's just what I needed to hear. I'm having issues with two boys with special needs(Asperger disorder)who doesn't communicate well with others, that I work with at a primary school. Not that I haven't heard it before or haven't used the strategies before, but a timely reminder. Good advice, thanks!

    1. Yes Colleen, I've used this method with Aspies too and it can be very helpful- but a lot of patience is needed, as you know. There are no quick fixes. (For those who don't deal with Aspergers every day, a quick explanation- the process of decoding the emotion becomes even more important here, because often the problem is as much about not recognising the feelings of other people as it is about how their own emotions are expressed.)

    2. My nearly 6yo isn't an Aspie, but he is ADHD. I can totally see this working as a better method for him too. His issue is impulse control. Being hyper is bad enough, but when you add in hitting, biting, spitting, or kicking if someone takes a toy he perceives he is still playing with, even after he's put it down, it's a recipe for disaster. We're starting K the 2012/2013 year due to a late September birthday, so he's going to be expected to be able to handle this already. Oy.

    3. You have your hands full, haven't you?

      You might find my post on anger management for preschoolers helpful - I can really recommend using puppets to clarify the emotions involved- if you can learn to operate two puppets at a time and act out the business of putting a toy down to play with in a minute, and anther puppet coming along and innocently picking it up saying 'Oh, nobody's playing with this'- and try to involve your son in what happens next...

      Then the coping strategy of deep breathing is also very useful, but your son will need constant support in stressful situations till he absorbs it.

      Good luck!!

  3. Thank you for this. I am a parent of a biological 5 1/2 yo, a biological very advanced just-3 yo, and an adopted special needs almost-3 yo. I am TRYING to move towards this more gentle 'discipline' and teaching, but it is very very difficult. Any posts like this are helpful for me. I don't think my special needs daughter is capable of expressing herself like this yet, but we continue to work on it.

    Would you be willing to write on how to work with kids who are enjoying 'having an impact' on other kids? IE, "Wow, if I say this I can make him/her shriek!" My leaning would be to direct them to other things where they can feel in control, but there's nothing quite like 'controlling' the reactions of another.

    Thank you again for all your wonderful insightful posts.

    1. Thanks, Misty. I will certainly think hard about your problem and see what I can come up with. Off the top of my head, I would be giving a child like this leadership and decision making roles around the house and ensuring that he/she had a lot of autonomy in appropriate areas. This could be expressed in jobs like choosing their own clothes, laying the table (without overt adult intervention), choosing their own food (from a nutritious selection of course) and finding things on your list in the supermarket.

      Also I can see a need to 'experiment' here- are you talking about the almost-3-yr-old?- which is very normal toddler behaviour- it will pass! Again, draw attention to the feelings wherever you can.

    2. Thank you!

      Actually it's all three of them, though the 5yo is definitely doing it less often. For the almost-3-yo it's shrieking ear-splittingly. For the other two it might be something like saying a random word that the other person objects to, and then repeating it over and over. Or laughing when the other person is sad.

    3. The ear-splitting shrieking- is the special need autism? That could be a sign of overstimulation, in which case she probably needs to be moved to a more laid-back, quiet environment away from the others till she calms down. Without knowing more about her special need it's hard to help out here.

      As for the other two- look for causes first in the emotional background to the situation. If there's a sibling rivalry thing happening, they may need you to address their feelings openly before you deal with the behaviour.

      The objectionable behaviour requires you to be very calm, very firm and very direct- establish eye contact, if necessary by physically removing the child to a room alone with you and waiting until they will look at you. Then say quietly whilst still holding them and looking them in the eye, "Stop. That is enough. I hear that you are not happy with your brother/sister but I will not let you show your feelings that way. If you are angry with them you may go play in your room alone or you may tell them what they are doing that annoys you. If you like you can tell them first, then go play alone in your room. Do you understand?"

  4. Thank you. I have a home child care and I'm one woman up against parents who come 100% from the "traditional" views of spanking and shaming and forced "I'm sorry". One family even tells their sweet, super-sensitive daughter "That's no reason to cry! Stop crying or you'll get a time out!"

    I feel caught in the middle of two worlds...the world I feel is right (this one) and the world where I have to make parents happy so they stay and I get paid (theirs). In my area new clients are not so plentiful that I can use afford to rock the boat too much.

    That was a long-winded lead-in to...thank you for finally presenting this concept (not forcing I'm Sorry) in a way that I feel I might actually be able to implement with my child care. I especially like your distinction between the apology for the behavior/action and the apology for the feeling.

    1. Oh, I really feel for you, AK!! That is hard and I know exactly what you mean about being caught between following your instincts and maintaining your financial welfare.

      I think it is terribly important to separate the behaviour and the emotion, in many areas of life. If we were able to do this it would help our partner and family relationships as well as our relationships with the children we care for. :)

  5. My 3yo son told me in no uncertain terms the other day "When you make me say sorry I feel bad and I want to hurt (his sister) EVEN MORE BADLY." I got the message then! This post reinforces that message for me but also reminds me to look for the reasons for his behaviour and help him narrate those more clearly. Thanks :).

    1. Wow, your son is very articulate for a 3-yr-old. Is he gifted? It's great that he could be so honest with you, and that you took the right message away from his honesty. Well done, you!

  6. I love this post!

    So glad to hear another parent/care-giver mentor saying all that you're saying here. I feel bad for kids and parents in such situations when I see/experience them feeling the pressure (mostly social pressure for the parents, and parental pressure for the kids) to force out a "sorry". And it's almost just as uncomfortable for the other kid(s) and parent(s) involved! It doesn't feel good to *anyone*, it doesn't feel like it solves anything, and it's problematic (at best) in terms of what it models.

    Speaking of which, I really appreciate the emphasis on modeling, in this post, as well as the emphasis on empathy. Both such important tools in taking excellent care of our little ones!

    Thanks again!

    Be well.

  7. Joel comes from a home where people get hit and nothing happens. Anything that you say or do to make this statement true outside the home reinforces what he already knows. In the "real world" when people hit other people there are consequences, often very serious. At the very least an apology is offered....preferably sincere. At the worst you get hit back or go to jail. Anything that you say or do that does not reflect this FACT is merely perpetuating what he already matter how intellectual or well-intentioned your argument. You ARE making excuses for bad behavior and your arguments are nothing more than a dressed-up and well-educated version of what his father probably says after he hits his mother. "It is not his fault that he has been taught that violence as a solution."

    1. Are you suggesting that I put Joel in 'virtual jail' or hit him back? I assure you he frequently gets hit back by his peers, which does nothing to teach anyone anything (except that Joel has quickly learned that the strongest child, him, tends to win). And putting him in 'time out', which has also happened frequently, neither changes his behaviour nor teaches him anything except that he's an outcast. Feeling like an outcast is not a good starting point for positive change.

      Your comment is not constructive. It makes no positive suggestion at all. It also misrepresents what was written in my post. At no stage did I condone hitting; on the contrary, I simply clarified that it was the hitting that I was upset about, not the being angry. It was the hitting that could be helped by an apology, and the anger needed to be addressed in words, not with fists. How this constitutes 'making excuses' in your mind, I fail to see. You are entitled to your opinion, but if you want to express it here I would appreciate a more respectful attitude.

  8. This brought back memories of my Mother and me when I was a little girl and I would be disrespectful or break something of hers. "Sorry does fix it.", is what she'd say. But, I would feel genuinely bad...though I had a bad temper and was bound to repeat the sass or do something wrong again.

    Somehow as a child I understood several things:
    I was truly sorry, and my Mom was the one who couldn't get over it.
    I figured she had been treated that way as a little girl and (maybe) didn't know how to forgive or make me feel better.
    When I grew up I never wanted to treat my children this way.

    However, though I didn't say those words, I did hold grudges for a while if they broke my things, but, I always told them I was sorry for taking so long to forgive them.

    I did make them say what they had done and sorry and hug and say, "I forgive you." to their siblings. If they disobeyed or disrespected us, they did have to say what they'd done, and "sorry" and go through the process of forgiveness. Now, they do it with their kids. I think talking it through is the most important part, and helping them to develop their voices!

    1. Talking things through is definitely important, Mary. I'm sorry your mother's messages were so confusing!

  9. Sorry, I meant to say, "Sorry doesn't fix it." Those were my Mother's words to me.


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