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 hear further argument, blame-shifting, and defiance. Perhaps 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?
Working as a professional school counselor for nearly a decade, I have taken part in a big shift with how public schools approach student behavior. I’m proud to be a part of a movement that utilizes evidence-based practices to foster empathy and drive positive change in student choices. I never give a parent presentation on conflict-resolution without incorporating six essential questions I learned through my training in Restorative Practices. These go-to responses are the bread and butter of the work I do with students after one has caused harm or when a child shows no remorse. My mission to empower parents to model and instill empathy through Such a Little While would not be complete without highlighting these powerful questions. They can easily be carried over into our world of gentle and positive parenting!
Why You Should Focus on Empathy When Your Child Shows No Remorse
With positive 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 really 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 own emotions are certainly at play. We might feel confused, upset, frustrated, angry, sad, or disappointed. As parents, we may 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
Of course, there are going to be hurtful choices children make that are quite significant and we need to intervene with a consequence. Please know your consequence can still take place in collaboration with the reflection questions below. Furthermore, when adopting a positive parenting approach, it’s most effective to strive for natural 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. Mom and dad 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
I’m so eager to tell you more about Restorative Practices, a behavioral change agent used in the field of education. I learned about Restorative Practices about 4 years into my school counseling career and it forever changed my work with students. 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
One of the first things they teach you in any master’s level counseling program is to never ask a question beginning with the word why. Why’s make people feel attacked, put them on the defense and often result in them shutting down the discussion altogether. I believe the same phenomenon applies to parenting. 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 to keep in your back pocket, it’s critical to mention 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.
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”, allow them some sort of space just to calm down. Remain visible, but at a distance. Let them know you are here for them and are available for a “time-in” when they are ready to talk. Let them know you would like to hear their side of the story. When they’re ready, you can go ahead with your questions. Some children may need to write or draw about what occurred before they can put their story into words. That’s okay too! Don’t forget to validate their feelings and experience along the way. My 10 ways to validate children’s feelings article can definitely help you find creative ways to accomplish this!
Restorative Question #1: “What happened?”
Begin with an open-ended question about what occurred and 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! It’s of course not said in a way that suggests disbelief or frustration, rather, a genuine desire to understand their thoughts at the time. Take note of any factors that may have triggered your child’s poor choice. 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 and 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. Praise your child for their honesty, willingness to reflect, and their 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. If you are the person they harmed, speak openly and honestly with an “I feel _______ when you _______” statement. Starting with “I feel” will help decrease the chances of them shutting down.
Restorative Question #6: “What do you think you need to do to make things right?”
This is one of my all-time favorite questions as a school counselor. 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. With my students, I almost always hear “say sorry” on this one, but it’s typically accompanied by a handful of 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?” As adults, it can feel so amazing to have the kiddos come up with a meaningful solution rather than just 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”. So what do they do? Blame everyone and everything they can think of to try and mask their mistake. Deep down, there is almost always empathy. And the key to unlocking it is trust. Trust in us as parents that they can speak openly and honestly with us after they mess up. Kids need to have 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 really 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 empathic parenting resources. Be proud and stay positive. You got this!