What To Do If Your Child Shows a Lack of Remorse

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

In this article I’m going to talk you through what to do if you are concerned about your child’s unemotional behaviors, or they show little empathy towards others.

We will look at red flag antisocial behavior problems and what they might mean, as well as when to seek support from mental health professionals.

Maybe your biggest worry is that your child doesn’t understand the value of the word ‘sorry’ and appears not to care if they are given a sanction for poor behaviour.

mother and tween son arguing in their kitchen

How to Spot a Lack of Remorse in a Child

A lack of remorse in a child can be down to a number of factors which we will explore through this article.

Children with no remorse don’t typically have this temperamental trait in isolation.

They may also display antisocial behaviours such as rule breaking or aggression or other behaviour problems such as impulsivity or tantrums.

Spotting a lack of remorse in a child can be challenging.  I’ve outlined below some of the most common signs and behaviours to look out for and observe.

  • Lacks the ability to apologise, even when prompted.
  • Gives superficial apologies. For example saying the word sorry, but not actually recognising why they are saying sorry.
  • Repeated patterns of defiant and non-cooperative behaviour.
  • Limited expression of or a lack of guilt or shame.

The Elements of Remorse

Feelings of remorse involve a sense of guilt or regret and a sense of empathy for the feelings of others.

In order for remorse to be expressed, understood and accepted in a skilled way, the following are usually involved.

  • Acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
  • Personal accountability.
  • Offering an apology that is genuine and authentic.
  • An ability to express guilt and regret.
  • Showing empathy.
  • An active change in behaviour.
  • Time and self-reflection. 

Even if your child is an older teen, it’s unlikely they have developed all the above abilities yet. It’s a process that takes time and practise.

Even some adults don’t have this skill set.

So, reflecting on your child, do they have some of the skills above?

Are some of them emerging?

Could it be just a matter of time before your child matures and develops their ability to show remorse?

Let’s look at some of the reasons why your child may lack remorse at the moment.

tween girl looking unhappy and defiant

Understanding Why Your Child Lacks Remorse

Difficult Early Life Experiences and Lack of Remorse

Children with tough early experiences might struggle to understand and manage emotions, including those of others, because they haven’t had consistent experiences of being supported to do this.

If you don’t understand how someone else is feeling or how your actions have impacted them, it’s very difficult to show remorse.

It can lead to difficulty in forming healthy relationships and understanding the impact of their actions on others.

Without support, a child might act out, showing little remorse, as a way to cope with unresolved pain or to gain control in a world that once felt unpredictable.

It’s crucial to approach these behaviors with empathy, recognizing they stem from unmet needs and past hurts.

Support and understanding can guide them towards healthier ways to express and manage their emotions.

Some contributary factors may come from:-

  • Extremely inconsistent parenting practices where a child’s needs aren’t met.
  • A lack of emotional nurture.
  • Lack of role modelling.
  • Trauma or abuse.
  • A strict and shaming disciplinary environment.
young boy bullying another child

Your Child Hasn’t Developed Remorse Yet

One of the most common reasons why your child lacks the ability to show remorse is that they simply haven’t developed the ability to understand and show it yet. 

Young children need guidance and a patient parenting approach when building these emotional response skills.

A child with special needs may take longer to develop these skills and require a more supportive framework in which to understand how, when and why they should show remorse.

For example, a four year old is still very much developing their emotional and social skills, so whilst they may be able to show signs of remorse, how they express it may be different from older children.

They Don’t Know How to Show It

It might be reasonable to conclude that a child’s apparent lack of empathy means that they have a lack of remorse. For instance, a child who doesn’t show any emotional response to having pushed over another child in the playground.

But, a lack of remorse in a child may actually be more about their inability to show it rather than actually feel it. 

Children don’t have a blue print to know how to respond in every situation. 

This takes experience, consistent messaging and self-determination.

When older children are not able to show remorse, it’s worth considering developmental, environmental, psychological and cognitive factors. 

Do they not have remorse yet, or do they have the capacity for remorse but not know how to show it?

It would be important to gain a comprehensive and clear picture of which components may be influencing their capacity for remorse.

teen boy at desk thoughtful, defiant

Autism and Lack of Remorse

Most autistic children possess empathy, but sometimes, this doesn’t come across because they can’t communicate it or they communicate it in an unconventional way.

Just like any child, a child who is autistic (sometimes referred to as ASD) may show inappropriate behaviour sometimes as they learn and develop. 

Knowing what is ‘usual’ behaviour for your autistic child will help in determining whether ‘unusual behaviours’ need particular attention or individualised support.

When neurotypical people show remorse, we tend to hear and see engagement which includes sympathetic intonation and body language. But for neurodivergent people, indicators such as eye contact, facial expressions and gestures can sometimes be missing or appear inappropriate to the narrative.

Autistic children can learn about this and how it can impact others. It’s also important for those around autistic children to have a good understanding that their responses may simply look and feel a little different.


Dealing With Lack of Remorse in Your Child: Don’t Worry About Labels, and Look Below the Surface

Remorse is just one characteristic that we want to help our children develop. 

It’s really important not to get bogged down by assigning labels that can feel negative or bad.

That said, labels or classifications can help professionals, parents and educators to devise and develop tailored emotional and behavioural support to children who are struggling with their behaviour. 

Here are some common things you might hear if you are looking into your child’s behaviour.

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Mental health issues
  • Signs of psychopathy

Psychologists, counsellors and therapists prefer to think about the whole child and the complicated factors that are contributing to their difficulties.

A label (such as those above) can sometimes detract from this and can be misleading.

Whilst these labels might be helpful for understanding adults in some cases, most professionals prefer to look deeper with children and adolescents, identifying root causes of the problems.

They would develop an action plan that might include therapeutic support, emotional and social skills support or helping those around the child to understand them better.

Your child is unique. 

Children have varied characteristics and temperaments and develop at different rates. 

If they don’t show remorse or much empathy, consider everything that might influence their emotional response.

I often think of understanding a child as being like a ‘fact-finding mission’. Like a jigsaw puzzle, you start by finding the pieces that you know and you are confident you understand.

You begin to put these together first.

There will be pieces missing but you have started to build a picture and with each piece, you are better informed and you are progressing. 

Lack of Remorse: What to Do If….

  • Your child doesn’t show remorse or genuine empathy after misbehaving.
  • Consequences  of certain behaviours doesn’t lead to your child changing their behaviour.
  • Your child appears selfish/won’t share.
  • Your child tells fibs.
  • Your child is manipulative and tries get around you.

Let’s think about how you could proactively parent and support your child if you see these behaviors.

  1. Early intervention is important. If you are seeing a pattern of behaviour, notice it, name it and seek to understand it.
  2. Model empathy in all that you do, with your child and towards others. Children learn best from what they see rather than what they are told.
  3. Observe their social interactions and step in to help and support if they need guidance.
  4. Express and show your own feelings. You will be teaching your child that it’s okay to verbalise and show emotion and it will demonstrate to them in what contexts they apply.
  5. Look for social skills groups or activities that can help support your child’s interactions with others.
  6. Perspective taking is also known as empathy. Talk to your child about the importance of considering the thoughts and feelings of others and seeing a situation from their viewpoint.  An example might be:  Asking your child how they might feel if the person they were unkind to said something mean to them in front of their friends.

When to Seek Help

If your child consistently shows little or no remorse for their actions or behaviour and it’s not because they’re too young, I recommend seeking some support from mental health providers such as counsellors or a child psychologist.

Some children can show quite worrying behaviours which may require more long-term and intensive treatments. 

Some examples might include, showing callous-unemotional traits or displaying cruelty to animals.

Much can be offered to help children with behavioural challenges and early intervention can help prevent further challenges through their teenage years. 

In the first instance I would recommend an appointment with your family doctor or healthcare provider. They will be able to determine whether a referral to a specialist is recommended.

six year old boy and his mother surrounded by toys

Lack of Remorse in a Child: Case Study – Jake

Jake is a little boy of 6 years old. He’s bright and energetic and lives at home with his parents and older brother Felix. 

Jake’s parents had noticed that he was particularly disruptive around his older brother, unkind and unempathetic. 

When it comes to following instructions, sharing toys or playing games, he appears particularly defiant.

Over the last six months, teachers have also noticed that Jake is displaying oppositional behaviour and little or no remorse. 

Jake refuses to comply with rules and can often display his temper and be verbally aggressive. 

A recent example involved him taking another pupil’s pencil case and throwing the contents at his peers.

Jake appeared unaffected by being given a behaviour mark on his chart and showed no remorse or apology when the pencil case was returned to it’s rightful owner. 

From the observer’s point of view, Jake’s oppositional behaviour appeared worrying. It seemed that he didn’t care about the impact it had on others or indeed himself.

Jake’s teachers and his parents agreed to an educational and psychological assessment. 

After much detective work, the results showed that Jake was developmentally delayed in many areas, and particularly in his emotional and social development.

He didn’t understand basic emotions, so he certainly couldn’t understand more complex ones like guilt or shame, or the impact of his own behaviours on other children.

To help and support Jake, his school worked with his parents in putting together a multi-disciplinary intervention approach which included:

  • Structured support both at school and home to manage Jake’s behaviour, for example more adult supervision to help Jake make kinder decisions and avoid others getting hurt.
  • At school, a specialist was brought in to work with Jake on emotional and social skills. Through games and activities, Jake learned about turn-taking, sharing, and understanding others’ feelings. These sessions were designed to be engaging, using Jake’s interests to motivate him.
  • At home, Jake’s parents implemented a positive reinforcement system. They praised and rewarded Jake for any empathetic behavior and following rules. They demonstrated kind behaviour to help Jake understand its importance. This system helped Jake understand the positive outcomes of his actions.
  • Regular meetings between Jake’s parents, teachers, and the specialist ensured everyone was aligned on his progress and strategies. This collaborative effort supported Jake in developing the emotional and social skills he was lacking, gradually helping him to show remorse and empathy towards others.
teen girl alone in a school corridor

Case Study 2: Teen Lack of Remorse – Willow

Willow, a 14-year-old, often puzzled her parents and teachers with her reactions.

When peers faced difficulties, her laughter seemed out of place. School sanctions left her unfazed.

This behavior raised concerns about her empathy and understanding of consequences.

Upon closer observation, a different picture emerged.

Willow’s laughter wasn’t malice but confusion over expressing her feelings. Deep down, she cared but lacked the tools to show it.

This revelation shifted the approach of those around her.

Her parents and teachers collaborated on a plan. They introduced role-playing exercises, allowing Willow to explore different responses in various scenarios. They also brought in comic strip conversations, an evidence-based approach to helping young people develop social understanding.

Eventually, this hands-on approach helped her understand the impact of her actions on others.

They also set up a ‘reflection time’ for Willow. During these sessions, she discussed her day, focusing on understanding her feelings and those of others.

Gradually, Willow began to express remorse and empathy more naturally, bridging the gap in her emotional expression.

In the background, Willow’s parents and teachers held in mind that she had some traits of autism and may benefit from an autism assessment in the future.

Lack of Remorse in a Child: Final Thoughts

Young people require the time, patience and support of parents in order to develop characteristic traits that help them to function as individuals and in society.

A lack of remorse in a child requires careful attention, observation and early intervention. 

Try to understand the context around your child’s behaviour being mindful of the developmental stage and possible individual differences.

Remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Talk to school and other parents, your doctor or healthcare provider. There is support available.

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Is Your Child Not Fitting In At School? Here’s How to Help Them

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

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