Avoid the Pitfalls of Apologizing to Your Estranged Child

If you aren’t careful, you can make things worse

Photo by Anastasia Vityukova on Unsplash

There’s A Right Way and A Wrong Way to Apologize

Here are some do’s and don’ts to follow. I have borrowed some of these from the book ‘Why Won’t You Apologize?’ by Harriet Lerner. I highly recommend this book. Apologizing properly is not easy, but it is something you can learn.

First, Respect Their Boundaries

The first thing to consider is whether your child has asked for no contact. If that is the case, you may not be able to offer an apology. This is one of the hardest things about estrangements. If all contact is cut off, you may never get that opportunity. There may be a way to handle this, though, that still honors your child’s request. Let me share how I handled this situation, recently.

When you apologize, state that you are sorry, acknowledge their pain, and leave it there.

For example, “I realize that I failed to be there for you when you needed me the most. I am sorry. I know how painful that must have been for you.”

Do NOT follow your apology with an excuse, a reason, or a ‘but.’

For example, “ I am sorry that I hurt your feelings, but you were being difficult and I had had a bad day.”

When you apologize, do not blame them for being hurt

“I’m sorry that you got your feelings hurt by what I said. I was only teasing. I didn’t know you were so sensitive. I will be more careful what I say around you from now on.”

Do not use your apology as a way to focus on your pain.

This one is really hard, and I will admit that I struggled with this one for a long time. This is where a good therapist may come in handy. I had to work long and hard to heal my own sense of failure, wretchedness, and shame to get the place where I could do this. If you are not there yet, delay your apology until you are.

If you aren’t sure why your child is angry with you, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle this.

So, what if you really don’t know why your child has estranged themselves from you? How can you apologize when you don’t know what you did?

A true apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even forgive.

This one is really, really hard. And, this one pissed me off the first time I heard it. I read an article by a psychologist who was answering a father’s question about how to reach out to his estranged daughter. Part of her response was that he should not ask her to forgive him, because that would make it about his pain and not about hers. I was enraged when I read this. How dare she minimize the pain a parent feels when they are estranged from their child? I was totally offended that she would say such a thing. We want to be forgiven! What’s wrong with that?

The Gifts of Apologizing

When we offer someone a true apology, it is a gift, according to Harriet Lerner. It is a gift to the person we have hurt and a gift to ourselves.

Human learning to be human. Writing in hopes of getting there.

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