Delivering an apology after a mistake is an important social skill for kids to learn — plus a good sign that they’re developing empathy. However, if your child frequently says “sorry” for every little thing, even things that aren’t their fault, or aren’t even mistakes — they may have picked up the habit of over-apologizing.
Other tell-tale signs of over-apologizing include saying “sorry” to constructive feedback, or using the word “sorry” when making requests, to avoid coming across as too demanding. Over-apologizers may start statements or questions with “Sorry, but…” or other hedging phrases like “This might be wrong, but…”
Why is over-apologizing a problem?
Your child might think they’re being polite or well-behaved, but apologizing too much can actually signal that they may be lacking the confidence to simply say what they want to say without always minimizing it. If they over-apologize, their opinions and needs may not be deemed as important as others’ who deliver them unapologetically.
Kids may form this habit out of feeling overly anxious about bothering anyone, getting in trouble, or being noticed. Or, they may be so stressed out or self-conscious about their own mistakes that they can’t move on from them. This can be problematic because when they actually need to apologize for something serious, it may not sound as sincere.
What you can do to help kids break the habit
Modeling the behavior you’d like to see in your kids and communicating clear expectations and boundaries to them can help teach them how to apologize appropriately. Here are some ideas parents can try if their kids tend to over-apologize —
- Thank them for the apology if an actual mistake was made, but remind them that one “sorry” is enough.
- Give them a silly word to say every time they want to overuse the word “sorry” (like “saucepan” or “spaghetti”).
- Ask what they’re sorry for and whether they really mean it. If a serious mistake was made, they should go beyond a cursory “sorry” anyway, to state what they did wrong and offer to help make it right.
- When you observe social interactions, talk about the difference between situations that need an apology and situations that don’t need an apology.
- Praise kids when they are direct and clear in their language, and take their opinions seriously. Kids should know that you value their opinions, even if you don’t agree — and that you appreciate their efforts to communicate.
- Check your own language: If you notice yourself overusing the word “sorry” or always putting others’ needs before your own, even when you’re the one in charge, try to come up with a more confident way to phrase the request next time.
- When you have made a serious mistake and need to apologize, make it clear what you’re apologizing for, to give those real apologies more weight.
- Have children ask themselves the following questions before they apologize for something. If the answer is “no” to all of them, no apology is needed!
- Did I hurt someone’s body?
- Did I hurt someone’s feelings?
- Did I scare someone?
- Did I damage something that belongs to someone else?
- Does someone need to do extra work beyond their job description to fix my mistake?
There are lots of situations where over-apologizers might be tempted to say “sorry,” but could use another, more effective phrase instead! Here are some examples of phrases you can practice together for situations where an apology isn’t really needed —
- When someone is being extra kind and helpful towards you: “Thank you so much for your help.”
- When you’ve made a small mistake that can be fixed: “I can help fix it.”
- When you want to say something important in a group setting: “Here’s what I’m thinking…”
- When you need to get through a crowd but people are in the way: “Excuse me.”
- When someone has accepted your apology and wants to move on: “OK. What do you want to do now?”
- When someone criticizes you respectfully: “Thanks for telling me. I’ll definitely think about what you said.”
- When you’re about to say or do something bold: Take a deep breath and go for it!
Helping kids break the habit of over-apologizing can foster their self-esteem and help them communicate with more confidence. It’s also a great opportunity for parents to examine their own behaviors and ways of communicating that they’re modeling for their kids. For more information on why and how parents should apologize to their kids, read our article.