Should You Force A Child to Apologize?

Have you ever demanded that a child say they’re sorry immediately after they’ve done or said something aggressive to you or someone else?

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“You say you’re sorry now!”

Most of us have.

But did you know that when you do this, that in a sense you’re teaching the child to lie. That’s because in those moments surrounding aggression, the child is not able to access the part of the brain where empathy lies.

In times of conflict and anger, the child is actually in “fight or flight” mode and is operating from the lower more reactive part of their brain.

We’ve all been there – in fight or flight mode. Those are those times that we say things we regret later or that we can’t believe that we said!

Dr. Dan Siegel, a prominent neuroscientist, provides a helpful simplification of basic brain structure. He refers to the brain as having an upper and lower brain. The lower brain is the more primitive part of the brain and houses the brain stem and the mid brain. While there are many functions of the lower brain, the part that is relevant to this discussion is that the fight or flight response is housed in the lower brain.

Then if we look at the upper brain or cortex – it is the higher thinking part of the brain and is where the prefrontal cortex lies – at the front of the brain just behind your eyes. It’s relevant to note that the ability to feel empathy lies in the pre-frontal cortex (along with many other functions).

What happens during moments of stress, anger and other negative emotions is that the prefrontal cortex disengages with the lower part of the brain and we go into that fight, flight or freeze response.

So if we relate this back to the child who is in a state of aggression, he or she is unlikely to feel empathy, because the pre-frontal cortex is disengaged. So, at best by forcing a child to say sorry at this time will evoke an insincere response. That’s when we hear those “SORRREE”s with an accompanying dirty look and so on!

Children do need to learn the importance of expressing their regrets and making amends for their actions. But first, adults will likely need to guide the child through a calming process so the child can once again access some sense of empathy and regret. Then at this point, the child will likely be ready to be guided towards a genuine expression of regret.

Below is one of the parent action cards from my Discipline with Influence Online Parent Program. The pre-ceding information should put the card into context.

Positive Discipline Solutions

The time when the child is most teachable is when they are in a calm and positive state of mind.

Learn other information about the brain that relates to effective discipline and communication in the Discipline with Influence Online Parent Program.

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A Key to Your Child’s Optimal Brain Development


“One generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world.”                                                                                                                -Charles Raisen

Gaining The Trust Of ChildrenThe above quote is quite literally true. Years of brain research has provided us with an abundance of information with regards to the brain – particularly how it develops and how it functions.

This information in turn, has provided us with crucial information with regards to parenting and discipline practices. As the quote implies, parents have tremendous influence on how their child’s brain develops which in turn has significant impact on their child’s success both now and in the future.

A bit about the physical aspect of the brain is helpful here. At birth, a baby’s brain is about 25 percent of its approximate adult weight. Growth happens quickly and connections and circuits begin to rapidly develop.

In fact, by the age of 3, a child’s brain has grown dramatically and has produced billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, between these cells. Did you know that 3 year olds have twice as many synapses as adults?

Connections (or synapses) are reinforced through repeated use. The connections that are used repeatedly become the strongest and the connections that are used less begin to fade away through a natural process called pruning. A child’s environment and experiences dictate which circuits get more use.

Early on, the formation of secure attachment paves the way for optimum brain development. The brain is a social organ and as such, brain development takes place within the context of relationship.

A child’s early experiences and the degree to which their parents and caregivers are responsive to not only their physical needs but their emotional needs, have a profound impact on brain architecture – either positively or negatively.

So the bottom line is that parents should make their relationships with their children a high priority!

Parents should focus on developing and maintaining a strong and healthy relationship with their children throughout their son or daughter’s childhood. This is true not only because of the impact quality relationships have on the developing brain, but because a healthy relationship between parents and children create an environment in which children are most likely to thrive, learn and cooperate.

With respect to the cooperation part, a child’s level of cooperation is often related to the degree of how connected the child feels to his or her caregiver.

This is partially why I always advise any parent or caregiver who is experiencing behaviour challenges with a child, to first focus on their relationship with the child and put the negative behaviour on the back burner for a while. Relationships can get frayed when there are behaviour difficulties and relationship is always where you need to start!

In my Discipline with Influence Online Program, I provide a great deal of information that parents need to know about a child’s brain development and function and share info on how to develop strong and healthy relationships with children as well!

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Dealing With A Child’s Big Emotions

Did you know acknowledging a child’s feelings helps to calm the reactive part of their brain? That’s right, by empathetically naming and acknowledging the feelings that a child is experiencing, there is a physiological response in their brain which involves calming neo-transmitters being squirted into the lower, more reactive part of his or her brain.

This practice of acknowledging a child’s feelings can feel counter-productive and even ridicules at times. A more instinctive response to a child’s emotions is to dismiss them, deny the validity of them or to try to talk them out of them.

Acknowledging a child’s feelings takes practice and patience and consciously reminding oneself that from the child’s perspective the feelings and emotions that he or she is experiencing and/or expressing are legitimate and real.

The fact is that even as adults, we have feelings and express emotions that may seem out of perspective to others. And when someone denies the validity of those emotions, it only serves to make us feel misunderstood and perhaps more frustrated or even angry.

But when someone acknowledges that we’re feeling upset and that they’re there for us, it affirms our worth as a person and serves to help us to feel empowered to deal with the emotion or situation in spite of how difficult it might feel at the time.

This type of response to a person’s emotions is what true empathy is about. It’s about being there in the moment without judgment.

Acknowledging emotions without judgment can tame a temper tantrum or other strong emotional reaction, as well as promote a more positive outcome for both you and the child. In addition, it serves to develop your child’s emotional intelligence.

So what’s the difference between acknowledging a child’s emotions rather than dismissing or denying him or her of having them? Let’s look at a few examples that contrast how adults might typically respond to a child’s emotions and what a more empathetical (and more soothing) response would sound like.

 Scenario:

You’re leaving your child to go to work: Child is crying “Don’t go! Don’t leave me!”
Typical adult response: “Don’t cry. Mommy will be back after work.’ (This is a downplay of the situation and somewhat of a putdown! In the child’s world, this is a big deal!)
A more empathetical response: “It’s hard to see Mommy go isn’t it?”

Scenario:

Child is angry because his time is up with a toy.
Typical adult response: “Give the toy to your friend. You’re being selfish! Can’t you see it’s his turn?” (This is an attempt to reason, talk the child out of their disappointment and another putdown.)
A more empathetical response: “It’s hard to share sometimes, isn’t it?”

 Scenario:

Child is crying over something you see as unnecessary.
Typical adult response:
“Don’t be silly; there’s nothing for you to be upset about.”
A more empathetical response: “I can see you feel sad (or upset). I’m here for you.” (Hugs often work wonders in these sort of situations.)

Of course, it’s not always as simple as a quick acknowledgement. You may need to stay in the moment WITH the child and continue to be emotionally responsive.

In my workshops and in my online Discipline with Influence Program, I advise parents, caregivers and teachers to be mindful in response to a child’s behaviour and emotions and to apply a 3 to 5 second rule before responding. These few seconds provide the time to take a step back mentally, calm your own brain and be responsive to the child rather than reactive.

Being emotionally responsive vs. reactive will serve to calm the child, validate their feelings and make them feel heard. This process can be the difference between the child feeling dismissed and misunderstood or the child feeling validated and understood.

Keep in mind, emotions expressed are better than unexpressed and pent up emotions. In the Discipline with Influence Online Program I provide a myriad of ways to help children develop emotional intelligence and express their emotions in healthy ways!

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Inviting Children’s Cooperation Through Choices

Between the ages of 1 and 3, children start their journey towards independence and personal power. This is a normal and healthy stage in their development.

Of course, children require a great deal of guidance, but it’s important to respect and support this increasing need for independence and personal power.

When children are supported in developing independence and given appropriate autonomy, they become more confident and secure in their ability to cope and survive in the world. Another way to say this is they develop a feeling of “being capable”.

A sense of personal power and feeling capable is directly tied to whether or not a child develops a strong inner locus of control or outer locus of control. Research points to the fact that children who have a stronger inner locus of control do better academically and in the more long term, that people who have a strong inner locus of control live more successful and happy lives.

But what is meant by locus of control?

Simply put, if a person has a strong inner locus of control they believe that they have the power to make choices and control the outcomes of their life – their own success or failure. A person with a strong outer locus of control believes that external forces (people, circumstances) have power over their life.

When we try to control children, we contribute to them developing an outer locus of control. Of course, we need to provide children with structure and guidance. But within that structure and those guidelines we can still leave space for the development of an inner locus of control.

The following is one way that we can do exactly that — provide guidance and structure while contributing to the development of a child’s inner locus of control AND invite cooperation from the child because it gives them some personal power.

The magic tool? Give children limited choices. 

Now – before you say – “oh, I’ve given my children choices and it doesn’t work” or “My child just says – I don’t want to do either – or comes up with something that is totally unacceptable” – hear me out! You need to add two key words to the choice. “You decide.”

Give the child two choices (you can live with) and then add “You decide”. This turns the locus of control over to the child.

Empower Children with Choices

Parent Action Card from the Discipline with Influence Online Program

For example – your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth. Give the child the choice of “Would you rather brush your teeth before you put your pyjamas on or after you put your pyjamas on? You decide.” The expectations (structure) have been set – but the child has some personal power and choice in the matter. The locus of control has been handed from you to him or her.

Key here is how you say it. You’ll get back what you give. If you say it in truly an empowering way, it will invite cooperation. If you say it in a snarky way it will invite defiance. (This is because of mirror neurons in our brain. )

The picture below depicts the different responses that a child will likely have based on whether they are responding to a “command” or whether they are being handed the locus of control – in this case a choice with  “You decide”.

Giving children choices

Giving children choices

In my Discipline with Influence Online Parenting Program I outline a number of ways to support children in developing an inner locus of control.

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Get What you Give

Did you know that how you say something to a child to a large extent determines their response.

Illustration of a Mother and Son ArguingIn Module Two of my Discipline with Influence Online Parent Program I outline some key facts about brain develop and function that parents need to be aware of when it comes to discipline and interacting with their children.

In this post, I’m going to share one of those brain facts that I outline in the program – that being that our brains have something called mirror neurons. Why this matters is that the existence of mirror neurons needs to impact how we communicate with children (or with anyone for that matter).

 Mirror Neurons are sometimes referred to as “monkey see, monkey do” neurons. They are one of the reasons that what you do is often more important than what you say. Mirror neurons not only simulate other peoples’ actions, but the emotions and intentions behind those actions as well.

Think of it. If someone smiles at you, the natural reaction is to smile back. This is because your mirror neurons for smiling fire and give you a sensation or feeling associated with smiling.

Understanding this key information can help to guide us in our interactions with our children and others.

If you, as the parent, can maintain your cool and calm, then you will be more liable to invite that same calmness from your child and at the same time invite more cooperation and positive behaviour. Conversely if you are stressed, angry or upset, that is what you will invite from your child.

The same holds true for when your child is exhibiting “big emotions”. If your child is upset, we are apt to unconsciously experience that same emotion of upset and convey that back to them. And it becomes a vicious circle!

But when you can catch and calm yourself or practice mindfulness in your response to your child’s challenging behaviour and emotions, you can de-escalate the behaviour and the emotions – and in turn reach a resolution much quicker.

I advise parents to adopt a 3 to 5 second rule – that is to take at least 3 – 5 seconds before they react to their child’s challenging behaviour. That small amount of time is enough time to say to yourself – “Stop, Pause and Think” – think about how you can respond in a constructive way vs. react.

The difference in the meanings of the words “respond” and “react” are subtle. I am using the word “respond” to apply to a constructive and thoughtful response. I’m using the word “react” to imply being more impulsive and perhaps combative.

Most of us react, often with anger or frustration to challenging behaviour, rather than respond in a mindful way.

It takes practice, but it’s so much more constructive if we stop and take that 3 to 5 second pause, so that we can respond in a supportive way.

Just another way to be a parent of influence!

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