Your child hits a sibling, calls you a hurtful name, or purposefully damages property in your home. As your blood pressure begins to rise, you wait for those two magic words, “I’m sorry”, to spew out on their own… but they don’t.
Your child shows no remorse! Instead, you get more argument, blame-shifting, and defiance. Perhaps after a long-winded lecture, you demand an apology, leveraging further consequences, and they relent. But did they really mean it? Should you be concerned your child is not showing the level of empathy you would expect?
Throughout my career as a professional school counselor, I witnessed a huge shift in how many public schools approached student discipline issues. Through a framework known as Restorative Practices, educators were able to foster empathy and repair harm without harsh punishments!
So how do they do it? Now as a certified positive discipline parent educator and parent myself, I’m eager to share with you 6 key restorative questions that transformed my career.
Why You Should Focus on Empathy When Your Child Shows No Remorse
With positive, authoritative parenting, it’s more effective to emphasize the behavior we want to see, rather than the behavior we don’t.
Let’s face it, your child’s lack of remorse is all about a moment that has already passed. While we cannot ignore the harm he or she caused, what we want is to decrease the possibility it will happen again in the future.
Most importantly, we want them to step into the shoes of the other person they affected, restore the relationship, and make things right moving forward.
Empathy is the cornerstone of your child’s budding emotional intelligence: Their ability to accurately identify feelings in themselves and others to drive decision-making. Now doesn’t that sound much more hopeful than an empty apology?!
Why Forced Apologies Don’t Work
When our children inflict harm, our emotions are certainly at play. We might feel confused, upset, frustrated, angry, sad, or disappointed.
As parents, we may also feel a duty to ensure justice is served. Perhaps another child or sibling was hurt, physically or emotionally, and you feel responsible to make things right.
Telling a child they must “say sorry” otherwise “x, y, and z will be taken away” simply doesn’t empower your child to change their behavior. Furthermore, the other child or individual who has been harmed is wise. They won’t feel a sense of justice if they see the apology is insincere.
How to “make things right”
We’ll go over this in greater detail when we get to question #6. But generally, it’s more powerful when your child, perhaps with input from the person he or she affected, comes up with their own way to “make things right”.
Children never cease to amaze me with their creativity and thoughtfulness on this one. That is, of course, after the heat of the moment has settled and they’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what occurred.
Stick with natural & logical consequences
When adopting a positive parenting approach, it’s most effective to strive for natural and logical consequences over arbitrary ones. Let’s pretend your child purposefully breaks her brother’s new toy. We have a few different options:
Arbitrary consequences have no direct relationship to the undesired behavior. Your child breaks her brother’s new toy on purpose, so you tell her she cannot have dessert tonight.
This type of consequence makes it incredibly tough for kids to connect the dots between cause and effect. If our goal is to build empathy, arbitrary consequences won’t help our kiddos to understand the impact of their choices on others.
Natural consequences are great because they occur organically (if we allow them to).
For example, your child breaks her brother’s new toy. As a result, her brother is upset and does not want to share his other toys for the rest of the afternoon. His feelings are valid!
As parents, we can take a step back and allow natural consequences to unfold. You might say something like, “Your brother feels upset and does not want to share right now. It’s okay for him to feel that way after you broke his toy. It looks like you’ll need to play with your own toys while he calms down.”
Natural consequences have the most direct link between behavior and outcome. Furthermore, they help kids to learn “real world” problem-solving and coping skills. As caregivers, we won’t always be there to impose a punishment, but that doesn’t mean our actions don’t come with consequences at every age!
Logical consequences are sparked by the grown-up but relate in some way to the child’s undesired behavior. They should be used with caution and avoid the perception of punishment.
For instance, your child breaks her brother’s toy, so you encourage her to brainstorm solutions on how she can help fix or replace the toy (notice the child is invited to take ownership in the problem-solving process).
Unlike adult-imposed arbitrary consequences, logical consequences help children make connections between their choices and the outcomes that follow. This link is essential to reduce the chances you’ll see that same behavior again in the future.
The Do’s & Dont’s of Questioning a Child Who Shows No Remorse
According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, Restorative Practices is a social science that helps to “improve human behavior”, “restore relationships”, and “repair harm”.
Although more comprehensive, in this article, we will focus primarily on the six Restorative Practices questions that are used to engage with children who have caused harm. These open-ended questions are designed to get kids thinking about the impact of their actions on others.
Questions That Don’t Spark Empathy
Before we dive in, let’s talk about the types of questions that do just the opposite of restoring relationships. The two biggies are “why” and “closed-ended” questions.
These types of questions shut conversations with kids down, rather than building an open and honest dialogue. This is especially important when talking with a child who shows no remorse. The good news is that once you become aware of them, these questions become much easier to avoid!
Avoid “Why” Questions
Why’s can make kids feel attacked, put them on the defense and often result in them shutting down the discussion altogether.
If a why slips out, don’t beat yourself up. It happens! Just pause, rephrase, and move on. But in general, these types of questions are not going to help us in our empathy-building mission. Examples include:
- “Why would you do_______?”
- “Why didn’t you _______?”
- “Why would you want to hurt _______?”
Minimize Closed-Ended Questions
After your child has caused harm, you try to talk to them about what happened. But they only give you one-word answers… how frustrating!
Double-check that you are not using too many closed-ended questions. These let kids squeak by with a “yes”, “no” or the classic “I don’t know” response.
Here are some examples of questions that won’t produce a meaningful reflection or conversation about what took place:
- “Did you do _______ on purpose?”
- “Don’t you think _______ is feeling sad?”
- “Are you going to apologize?”
6 Questions to Spark Empathy When Your Child Shows No Remorse
First, provide time & space, then hold a “time-in”
Before we jump into the six Restorative Questions, it’s critical to know when these questions should be delivered.
Most kids are going to need some time and space to cool-off after a conflict or harm-inflicting event. This is particularly true for a child who shows no remorse soon after a misstep. Asking questions when your child is worked up is not likely to yield positive results.
It’s okay if the situation isn’t “fixed” immediately. I struggle with this myself! When there is a rift in our home we want it smoothed over ASAP. I get it.
Unfortunately, that’s not always realistic and is not likely to provide long-term, meaningful solutions.
Why it’s worth waiting
Children are all different in the time and physical space they need to process emotions. You know your child best. But rather than putting them in “time-out”, you can create a designated calming space to hold a time-IN:
Are you looking to parent differently? Do time-ins sound appealing but you have no idea where to start? Have you been using time-outs and you’re looking to make a change?
With our easy, step-by-step guide to master time-INs, you will feel calm and confident in holding boundaries from a place of love! Learn more about our best-selling Time-In Response Plan
And now for the 6 questions to spark empathy in your home today:
Restorative Question #1: “What happened?”
Begin with an open-ended question about what occurred. Most importantly, convey that you are willing to listen to your child’s side of the story.
Probe for information calmly and with a true interest in learning more about their perspective. Paraphrase and ask your child to confirm that you have understood them correctly.
Restorative Question #2: “What were you thinking of at the time?”
Our tone of voice is huge on this one! Note: It’s not said in a way that suggests disbelief or frustration, rather, a genuine desire to understand a child’s thoughts at the time.
Take note of any factors that may have triggered your child’s undesired behavior. This way, you can work together to decrease the chance of that choice happening again.
Restorative Question #3: “What have you thought about since?”
This question reinforces why time and space to cool off is a must! If it’s only been a hot second since the event, your child will not have had the opportunity to reflect. As a result, they will likely still be speaking out of anger.
If he or she does not respond with remorse or empathy, try to bite your tongue! Keep listening, validating, and paraphrasing. Let’s wait and see if questions four and five might just spark an “a-ha” moment.
Restorative Question #4: “Who has been affected by what you have done?”
Lovingly challenge your child to think outside of the box on this one. If your child hits his sister, of course, we are going to need to talk about sister here.
But, he’s probably super mad at sister right now about something and it’s hard to feel empathetic towards her. So let’s come back to her.
What was the ripple effect of this event? Let’s say he hit his sister at a friend’s birthday party. How might that friend feel about what happened? The friend did nothing wrong, yet his party endured this chaotic incident.
There’s less room for excuses, blame-placing, and defensiveness when you zoom out on the situation. If you need to, focus on individuals on the periphery of what happened.
Recognize your child for their honesty, willingness to reflect, and ability to empathize with those individuals. Encourage them to keep going and work your way into discussing the primary person affected.
Restorative Question #5: “In what way have they been affected?”
There are so many ways our actions affect others: Physically, emotionally, and our ability to trust someone.
This question should be delivered in an open-ended format to avoid “yes” and “no” responses. If your child responds with “I don’t know”, come up with a plan together to ask the other person and find out.
Restorative Question #6: “What do you think you need to do to make things right?”
This is my all-time favorite parenting question It not only sparks empathy by asking the child to think about the situation from another perspective but empowers them towards positive change.
They made a mistake, and they have an opportunity to take ownership in making things right. You’re likely to hear “say sorry” on this one, but it can be accompanied by other original and thoughtful ideas as well!
If your child is still saying “I don’t know” by question five, they may still need more time and space to process what happened. This is okay!
But if they are calm and truly just having trouble, invite them to ask the other person, “What do you need from me to make things right?”
Remember, It’s far more powerful to have children come up with a meaningful solution rather than imposing an arbitrary one ourselves.
Restorative questions for the person affected
Restorative Practices also provides a set of questions for the individual harmed. Generally, it’s best to ask each child his or her set of questions individually, then later share responses with one another if appropriate.
If applicable, e.g., in a sibling squabble situation, you may consider having your child listen to the responses of the affected sibling. Of course, the harm or hurt feelings often go both ways so you may need to overlap questions a bit!
- “What did you think when you realized what had happened?”
- “What impact has this incident had on you and others?”
- “What has been the hardest thing for you?”
- “What do you think needs to happen to make things right?”
The Last Thing You Need to Know When Your Child Shows No Remorse
In working with thousands of children over the years, I truly believe what is often interpreted as a child who shows no remorse is just a kiddo consumed with fear or anger about getting “in trouble”.
Fear drives kids to blame everyone and everything they can think of to try and mask their mistakes. Deep down, there is almost always empathy.
And the key to unlocking empathy is trust. Trust in us as parents that they can speak openly and honestly with us after they mess up.
Kids need to trust that we will love them unconditionally, even if we don’t always like the choices that they make. They need to trust that we will support them in making things right again.
It’s okay to seek outside help when your child shows no remorse
If your child is having a very tough time tapping into that internal empathy, I want to assure you they are not a “bad kid” and you are not a “bad parent”. These behaviors are more common than you may think and change is possible.
That being said, if you feel like you’re at a place where additional intervention is warranted, never hesitate to contact your child’s school counselor for local referrals.
Your insurance company is often a great place to start as well. They can help you work from a list of approved providers in your area. Most providers should offer you a parent consultation session first to talk about your concerns as well as what benefits therapy may be able to provide your child and family.
You’re a great parent (& here’s the proof!)
The fact that you sought out this article and are taking the time to understand your child’s perspective tells me that you have tremendous empathy. You are modeling the very behavior you wish to see in your child! What a powerful parenting tool.
The Such a Little While Circle of Support is filled with parents just like you, who hold empathy as a core parenting value. I extend a wholehearted invitation for you to join in below. We would love to have you in our support system and to take part in more free positive parenting resources. Be proud and stay positive. You got this!
31 thoughts on “My Child Shows No Remorse! How to Spark Empathy”
This was a great read and hits home. My second hits her older sibling all the time and shows no remorse. But I find that hours later she will apologize on her own terms. The other day she kicked her sister at night. She said sorry but didn’t mean it. Her sister didn’t accept her apology as this happens all the time. The next morning, the first thing she said to her sister was how sorry she was for kicking her (this time I could tell that was sincere). I think sometimes kids need time to process what they did and the feelings and consequences that come out of that. So so hard to navigate through.
Hi Astrid! Thank you so much for your kind words and meaningful feedback! This is SO tough! I fully agree about giving kids time to process. In the heat of the moment, it’s even hard for us as adults to admit a mistake. Give them some time to process and kids’ kindness will shine through 🙂
Interesting. Actually, the whole post was interesting. We have neurodiverse kiddos in our household, so the usual scenarios around here when someone owes someone else an apology are a. one kid had [in her mind] a VERY valid reason for somehow harming the other, or b. one kid honestly had no idea that she’d done something to upset the other (though, to be fair, that’s more often with one of our kiddos and situations that have nothing to do with our family). So we spend a lot more time on question #1 you list above than any other.
Hi Flossy! Thank you so much for reading and sharing your story. #1 can take so. much. time. When I was a new counselor, I would spend hours meeting with students of all ages, strengths, abilities trying to piece together a cohesive story of what occurred following an incident. The moral of the story, it’s pretty much impossible to do with young children! For question 1, I’ve found the most essential goal is for everyone to feel heard, followed by recognizing that everyone is entitled to their own perspective of what happened. 🙂 It sounds like you are doing great mama!
These tips make a lot of sense! I try to use similar techniques when I’m working with families as a therapist outside of the school. Kids respond in such unique ways that we often lose sight of as adults. Thanks for sharing!
Hi Kelly! Thank you so much for reading and sharing. I’m sure this is a common concern for the families that you work with! Thank you for all that you do 🙂
Incredible post! I can see why the Restorative Questions and practice has changed your life as a counselor-they are really amazing.
I don’t have kids yet but the day is coming soon and I’m so eager to teach them about empathy, kindness, and all the things I missed growing up. Posts like this help get me in that mindset! Thanks for sharing 😊
Aww, thank you Maria! You’ve made my day! It sounds like you are going to be a wonderful, empathic mother one day 🙂
I’m not a mum but I teach kids. Now we have moved to online teaching. It would be great if you had some nice tips also for situations when you are not a parent but you want to show good example to kids that are not yours. How would you deal with such kids in an online classroom? Would appreciate your comments 🙂
Hi Sonia! Thank you so much for reading and for the incredible work you are doing right now with distance learning! Restorative Practice was designed for educators so these questions can definitely be used by teachers! I know teachers are quite busy have less time to work through some of these scenarios individually with students compared to school counselors. I’ve found a lot of lower-level situations can be quickly resolved just by asked “What do you think needs to happen to make things right?” in the classroom. On the preventative side, Restorative Circles are also a great way to build classroom community and to model empathy. My school practices “morning meetings” where each student gets to answer a question or share something personal in a circle each day.
Thank you SO much for this! I noticed that my 4yo son especially lacks empathy when he fights with his sister (who s 6). I was seriously afraid he was gonna end up a serial killer!!! We are working with a kid therapist for his ADHD and other things related, and I feel like I will talk about this with her next time! I grabbed the posters for reference, thank you again!!! ❤️
Hi Valerie! Thank you for your sweet comment! You would be surprised how many parents have googled that same silly fear 🙂 Please rest assured, you are not alone! Your little guy has an amazing mama advocating for his best interest, so something tells me he will be just fine. I actually thought about including a special section in this article for parents of children with ADHD because it is such a common challenge for kids. Perhaps I should make it an entire post altogether. I sincerely hope you find the posters helpful for quick reference! Thanks, mama!
I love that in your suggestions on how to spark empathy, one of your restorative questions asks who was affected by what was done. I think, especially as children go through their egocentric phase, it’s important for them to learn that their actions affect others.
Hi Kimberlie! Thank you so much… I love this question as well! The ability to step into the shoes of another person is a huge milestone for kids.
This is a well written article. The best part is that many of these strategies and questions can be directed at adults as well. This may make communication a lot easier and effective.
Thank you so much, Lenore! You’re absolutely correct, Restorative Practices (or Restorative Justice) can be totally applicable to us as adults 🙂
Great post! Thanks for sharing!
Hi there! Thank you so much for reading and for your kind comment!
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Love the restorative questions you suggested. I am guilty of sometimes asking close-ended questions due to already being frustrated so this was a great reminder!
Thank you so much, Lucy! We are all guilty at times. No need to worry or feel guilty over it either, those feelings of frustrations are totally valid and we all experience them! A simple rephrasing in the moment goes a long way 🙂
Great information. It’s definitely tough when a kid doesn’t show empathy. Since it’s pretty natural for them to be this way for a while, it does put a lot of parents into a stupor. Plus it doesn’t help that so many of us are conditioned to make sure the kid says “sorry”. It’s actually totally meaningless a lot of the time. Our preschool practices a similar method, where instead of sorry, the aggressor needs to talk to the hurt party and ask them how they can make them feel better. The focus comes off the why and shifts into what can you change and make better. It’s a wonderful way to help kids learn some empathy.
Hi Maria! Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! It’s always so fantastic to hear about other schools getting on board with a positive approach to behavior and discipline, especially at such a young age.
Oh, thank you for these. I was wondering what I could ask — i have to admit, not so good with this. I’ve had my share of demanding apologies or trying to kick their conscience.
Thanks for these question, I will try them.
Hi May, thank you so much for reading and leaving your kind comment. You’re not alone, mama! It’s so hard to find the right words when we’re also combating our own feelings of frustration. I literally carried around a Restorative Questions card until eventually committing them to memory (hence, the posters!) I genuinely hope you find them helpful!
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This clear explanation of consequences is something new to me. By understanding how they work you can apply the right measures at the right time. I love your worksheets, I subscribed and am waiting for more.
Thank you Monica! I was so thrilled to see you join our circle of support! Lots of new social-emotional development worksheets coming your way soon 🙂
This is really interesting! I don’t have kids, but I really like the concept of sparking empathy, especially the idea of consequences that logically follow their actions. Thanks for sharing this info!
Thank you so much, Kait, for reading and for your kind comment!