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We have noticed my 5 year old son is overly apologetic. Towards all and for even minor things. I have no idea where the apologising for every mistake came into him from. When slightly younger we did ask him to apologise for his mistakes - but we weren't standing on one leg, adamant, till he did that.

We have tried to tell him that when he accidentally hurts his sister while playing, instead of sitting and apologising he can offer to get her an ice pack. Or offer to let mum and dad know that she is hurt (not that we can't hear, but this is something he can offer as remediation).

If he forgets his toys and says "I am sorry I forgot the toy at school" - I tell him to stop apologising and to learn from this and keep in mind to check for his belongings while leaving from school.

Recently, he was playing in the street with a football and the ball lodged in a tree. A neighbour walking by offered to help and snapped off a branch and flicked the ball over. We could hear our child apologise to the neighbour. Even the neighbour was a bit taken aback and said "You don't have to apologise".

So now the child has feedback from family and outsiders and still continues to have the "I am sorry" routine. And shows genuine remorse - where it isn't even warranted.

It appears that overly apologetic children turn into adults with no confidence and always undermine themselves. It's concerning that I know this is probably damaging behaviour and I am unsuccessful in turning this over. I fear my skills as a parent (or lack thereof) will turn him into an adult who is not going to be confident. I and partner make sure he is praised for his achievements (Colouring book, craft, remembering how to read three letter words, etc.) every so often.

My questions: Is an overly apologetic child a symptom of a deeper underlying behaviour/problem (including from parents)? How do I correct this? How do I make my 5 (nearly 6) year old son have the right understanding about apology?

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    Is he Canadian? (Sorry, couldn't resist!) – Greg Hewgill Jan 21 at 1:29
  • @GregHewgill Nope. Australian. But interesting link you posted there. – happybuddha Jan 21 at 2:29
  • Why should he avoid apologizing to someone he hurt accidentally? You say, "It appears that overly apologetic children turn into adults with no confidence and always undermine themselves." Is this based in fact or suspicion? I am considered "successful" in almost every way defined by society (which is not how I define success.) I could have done little of that without confidence. Yet I apologize when I bump into my dogs! The ability to offer sincere apologies is a measure of empathy, self-esteem and integrity. If it were not a frame challenge, I'd expand on this. – anongoodnurse Jan 22 at 18:38
  • @anon: I had the same reaction as you to that passage. At the same time, from the description that the neighbour was "taken aback" I suppose the behaviour might be more uncalled for than what comes across in the text. – dxh Jan 22 at 18:48
  • @dxh - Agreed on the last example, but the OP's reaction in the first is rather concerning. Still, the child may have been apologizing simply for putting someone out. Maybe discernment for when "Thank you" is a more appropriate response is appropriate, but the rest is an assumption, and one that might cause the child to think they are defective. – anongoodnurse Jan 23 at 18:49
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At that age, I wouldn't be too concerned, if this is an isolated issue. Apologizing is a complex concept. It involves recognition of a wrong, a show of remorse, an acceptance of guilt, and preferably, an intention to avoid the same mistake in the future. A lot of adults don't get apologies right (e.g. the classic "I'm sorry you find that offensive"). At five, I wouldn't find it surprising if "I'm sorry" is a phrase he uses to acknowledge that something went wrong, but all the nuances of when and why to use it hasn't yet dawned on him.

He's old enough to have a conversation about the phrase. Don't just tell him "you don't need to apologize for that". Ask him what saying "I'm sorry" means to him. You can also say what the word means to you, but it's such a complex phrase, I wouldn't rush to correct him if what he says doesn't fit your definition. If it is just a way to make amends and something that makes him feel good to say, he may not have an issue with confidence, but just be a very compassionate child.

Make sure you role model adequate apologies. Do you apologize often and under the right circumstances, so that your child hears it? If apologies is something he's acquainted with only through occasionally being asked to deliver one, and perhaps hearing other parents demanding one from their children, then it's completely understandable that he hasn't developed a reliable gut feeling for when one is appropriate.

Again, that is if the apologies is an isolated issue. If the apologies were just the most obvious example of something you feel permeates his personality, then of course something else may be at play. I think you who know the child will be able to tell whether the above explanation makes sense.

Whether it's acutely needed or not, I think boosting a child's self esteem and sense of self worth is always a good investment in the child. You say you make a point out of praising achievements. I would argue you want to decouple your praise from the child's achievements. Praise the child. Praise effort. Focus on the coloring and crafts being fun activities with their own inherent value, rather than a means to produce a result for your appraisal.

Next time the child is drawing, don't say "nice boat, kid"; say "wow, I see you're drawing a boat. Where's it going?" I very consciously try to direct my attention away from outcomes, to minimize the risk that my children should feel their self worth is linked to their performance.

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