My child shows no remorse #3

Q: I have a 4 year old son who doesn’t seem to show any empathy when he hurts someone. Just yesterday he was sent home from school because he punched a child in the face. When he was asked to apologize to the boy that was crying, he didn’t seem to show any signs of empathy, sadness for the other boy or embarrassment for what he did.

There haven't been any changes in our household that would warrant the change in behaviour. He comes from a very loving home, where we provide lots of fun activity and display empathy ourselves. He sings songs like “Mummie I love you. You are my favourite Mummie” which he makes up himself and can be very affectionate – but I worry when he doesn’t show any empathy if he has hit someone or hurt someone’s feelings. Please help. I so look forward to your response.

A: Thanks so much for writing. Your son is blessed to have you for his mom - your loving and conscientious nature is evident in your email. It sounds to me like you are doing wonderful things for and with him.

At age four, his little brain is still working on the wiring for empathy. The connections are tenuous, and even a little bit of stress from something as simple as a conversation he overheard at school can disconnect those wires. He's feeling something in there, but it doesn't always make its way to the surface at this age.

It's wonderful that he makes up love songs for you - that tells me that when he's feeling good, the connections to and from his heart are strong, and he can express the love he feels beautifully.

You may never know what happened that caused him to disconnect from his feelings after hitting, but sometimes, rather than a lack of remorse, it's actually overwhelming remorse that turns kids to stone.

I'd say rather than trying to get him to feel remorse, give him some extra TLC for the pain he feels when he hurts someone. Say something like, I know you didn't really want to hurt him, honey, and it's a little scary and sad for you to see that he's crying. Do you need a hug?

Don't ask him to agree with you or admit to these feelings, just say these things and be present with him.

And when his feelings do surface, comfort him. There may be a backlog of feelings that he needs to release by crying or raging. Stay with him and listen lovingly.
Then when he's feeling better, go together with him to the other child to support him in making amends. This kind of support from you will help lay the groundwork for him to feel and express remorse without your assistance eventually.
You may find some useful information in some of these earlier posts, as well at the categories of aggression and brain research over there in the sidebar on the right.

Take care, and let me know if you have any further questions. You are doing a really good job with your little guy.
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit


Anonymous said...

I came on the internet for almost the exact same reason... my four year old is having same problems and more. comforting to know that someone out there feels my pain and that it's not just me.

Anonymous said...

Same here. My little girl is loving and sweet in so many ways but seems unaffected, or even bored, when she accidentally hurts someone. Thanks for the encouragement.

karen alonge said...

thanks for taking the time to comment. You are definitely not alone in this, and I hope you both find the support you need to get through this - it's very tough!

Anonymous said...

My friend's 4 year old drown his puppy in the pool and showed no remorse even though she cried like a baby, He has been showing signs of rage,. His biological father, whom he was rarely around because he was in jail for using her as a punching bag when the boy was little, was a drug user and a narcistic person. Is that hereditary?

karen alonge said...

How terribly sad for everyone involved.

This 4 year old is crying out for help.

Of course you can't tell your friend what to do, but if she discloses that she is considering getting an assessment or therapy for him, please do whatever you can to support her in pursuing it.

and in the meantime, do whatever you can when you are with him to protect him from getting the opportunity to do harm. Supervise him very closely by staying where you can see and reach him at all times. Give him interesting things to focus on, or challenges to overcome, that will keep his attention and energy focused in a positive direction.

Your friend will need lots of emotional support, so plan to do a lot of supportive listening while she vents her frustration and fear. Don't give advice or share your opinion, however. Just listen compassionately while she unloads the burden she must be carrying. She will feel much better afterwards, and venting might help her to assess her options more clearly.

wishing the best for you all,