"Sorry" — one simple word that happens to hold a lot of power. But what is the purpose of an apology?

A number of things, really. It conveys a person has evaluated their words or actions and realized their misstep. It shows they want to make amends with the person who was wronged as they value their feelings. In short, it is a way of dealing with remorse.

However, there also exists a practice of demanding or insisting on an apology. It is not uncommon to hear something along the lines of "say you're sorry!" from a parent or a teacher directed at a child. But is this really a good idea?

For an adult, it works as a quick way to diffuse a situation between two kids, typically a wrongdoer and a victim. But according to psychologists, it may be harmful to force an apology out of a child who does not feel remorseful. 

Children, as young as preschoolers, can differentiate between a sincere apology and a forced one. Hearing the latter does not make them feel better as it becomes clear that the apologizer does not respect their feelings but only seeks to escape negative consequences.

"Make sure the child understands why the other person feels bad, and make sure the child is really ready to say 'I'm sorry.' Then have them apologize," said Craig Smith, a research investigator at the University of Michigan. "Coercing your child to apologize is going to backfire."

Consider this scenario — "Kevin" steals a doll that belonged to "Susie," making her cry. Instead of forcing him to apologize immediately, you can sit down with Kevin and ask why he felt the need to do this. Guidance from an adult is the key here. He may benefit from putting himself in her shoes by imagining how he would feel if someone stole his favorite toy. Communication of this kind can help strengthen empathy during early childhood.

Ideally, this would encourage Kevin to calm down and eventually offer a willing apology to Susie, who may appreciate it a lot more than an "I'm sorry," which appears forced and mumbled. 

Studies have also shown children may not always use their words the way adults do. In this scenario, Kevin may walk up to Susie and offer his own toy for her to play with. He may not utter the word "sorry," but the ultimate message is still conveyed.

"An apology is one way to do it, but there are lots of ways," Smith said in agreement. "Research shows that even preschoolers value it when a wrongdoer makes amends with action. Sometimes this is more powerful than words."