Avoid the Pitfalls of Apologizing to Your Estranged Child
Estranged parents want to repair their relationship with their child. Apologizing seems to be the logical thing to do. But how you do it can either bring you closer to healing, or push your child further away.
Many of us don’t know how to offer the kind of apology that will help our child open instead of shutting them down. We may have offered many apologies already and wonder why our child is not responding. What do they want from us? They want what we all want. A true apology.
What can get in the way of a genuine apology is our feelings about the estrangement. Our emotions can be all over the place. We may not know why our child walked away and are sincerely confused and hurt. We may be angry that they left without giving us a chance to make things right. We may think that they are overreacting and taking something we did the wrong way. We may feel that we have done nothing wrong and feel indignant that they did this to us.
All of these feelings are normal, but not always helpful. I have been estranged from my daughter going on 10 years now, and I have run the gamut of all those feelings as I have tried to find my way to some sense of equanimity. What I have learned is in order to offer a true apology, I have to drop all my feelings about how this is affecting me and focus on how it is affecting my daughter. This has been the hardest work I have ever had to do. And I have messed up more than a few times.
In order to make a true apology, we have to drop our image of ourselves as the victimized parent, and be vulnerable to seeing that we aren’t perfect. This isn’t easy. We have to get out of our own way. This is not about us. For now, we need to focus on our child, even if we think they are being unreasonable. If we can do this well, it can be healing for both of us. A true apology can signal to your child that you are ready to drop your defenses and really listen to them.
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.
So how do you apologize to your child in a way that will enable them to open up to you, and possibly lead to reconciliation?
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.
My policy is to keep other family members out of my estrangement from my daughter. I broke my rule this one time. I asked someone who does have contact with her to give her this message: “Your mom wants to send you a letter, and she would like you to read it. She does not want anything from you. She just asks that you read it. Would you be willing to let her do that?”
The answer was yes and then I was given her address — a P.O. Box. If your child has asked for no contact, do not ignore that request. Trampling their boundaries is not a good way to get them to come back to you. But, if it is possible for you to go through a neutral party, and get your child’s assent, then you can write them a letter that maybe they will read.
Now that you have the avenue for getting an apology to them, the next step is deciding what you will say. This is where it gets tricky, and if you are not able to do it right, it would be best to wait until you have done some healing of your own before you attempt it. Your child may never give you another chance, so don’t get it wrong if you can help it. If you have already done it wrong, don’t beat yourself up. Just try again following these guidelines.
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.”
“ I am sorry that I failed you and did not provide what you needed to feel safe. It must have been really hard for you.”
These apologies are followed by a period, as they should be.
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.”
This may be the absolute truth, but this is not a healing apology. This is justifying your behavior. Your child will not hear this as an apology, and neither would you.
“I am sorry that I failed you and did not make you feel safe, but you don’t know what I was going through! It was all I could do to keep going! I was doing the best I could. What else could I do?”
Again, this may be perfectly true, but this is irrelevant to your child’s pain. Your struggles are not what your child wants to hear about. She wants to hear you say you acknowledge that she was hurt. When your child feels heard, and you have made amends, you may want to talk about what else was going on, but your apology is not the place for this.
We all have reasons why we do things that hurt others. The point is to stop turning those reasons into excuses. If you are going to apologize to your child, simply saying “I am sorry that I hurt you” is enough. The reasons don’t matter because they won’t lessen your child’s pain.
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.”
Can you hear that? Would you accept that as an apology? That is an actual apology that I received from someone who embarrassed me in front of a group of people. This apology did not focus on the hurtful comment the person made, it focused on my “sensitivity”, basically making the whole thing my fault. This felt more like being shamed than having someone apologize.
When you apologize to your child, you must focus on your actions. Never start an apology with, “I’m sorry you ….” This takes the focus off of your behavior and puts it on their response to your behavior.
“I’m sorry you got upset by what I said.”
“I’m sorry you were offended when I said you shouldn’t have taken that job.”
Sorry, but these are not apologies.
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.
This is how this plays out when it is done improperly. Your child confronts you with something you have done to hurt them. You are so overcome with grief and shame that you begin to say things like, “I am a horrible mother! I am such an awful person. I should not have been allowed to have children. I am such a failure! No wonder you don’t love me anymore!” And so on.
Immediately, your child is being put in a place of tending to your pain. You are so swept up in self-pity that you have taken the focus off of their pain. This is not the way to heal your relationship.
When you are writing an apology, you need to leave out the part about how much they have hurt you and how much you are suffering. Don’t tell them how much you hate yourself for doing them harm. Don’t tell them that you will never be happy again until they come back to you. I know it is tempting to do this because your pain is real. You are hurting. But, a true apology will focus only on the pain of the one you have hurt.
You have to tend to your own pain, and not expect your estranged child to do it. If you want your child to feel free to air their grievances with you, you must resist the urge to express self-pity while they are sharing. If you are writing a letter of apology, keep all the self-pity and self-loathing out of it. Simply stating, “I know that I failed you and I am sorry for the pain that has caused you” is enough. Share your pain with a trusted friend, your counselor, or your journal. Don’t try to sway your child by telling them how much they have hurt you.
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?
If you truly don’t know what you did, and feel yourself to be blameless, you may decide not to apologize. But if you are open to the possibility that you did something to hurt your child, I suggest you offer an apology that looks like this; “ I am sorry that I have hurt you. I want to take responsibility for the ways I have failed you and I am ready to hear from you about what you are feeling.”
Don’t say, “I’m sorry for whatever I did to hurt you.”
Don’t say, “I can’t imagine what I did to make you walk out of my life. Don’t you remember all the things I did for you? I’m sorry you are mad at me, but I need you to tell me what I did that was so wrong.”
Try really hard to focus on your child’s feelings, and not on your bewilderment about why they have walked out of your life. If your child thinks you are not open to seeing yourself the way they see you, they will not bother with trying to reconcile.
“I am sorry that I have hurt you. I know that you must be in pain, and I know that I am responsible for that. I am open to hearing about your experience and I want to make amends.”
Even if you don’t think you did anything wrong (which you may not have)being open to that possibility may help your child feel safe enough to have a dialog with you. But you must be willing to hear them out and not negate their feelings by telling them they are wrong or that things didn’t happen the way they remember. It would be easy to blow a chance at reconciliation by doing this.
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?
Of course, she was right. I was still focused on my own pain and grief around the estrangement. I was not ready to hear that asking my child to forgive me was about assuaging my own guilt and not about helping her to heal.
When we seek forgiveness, we may be rushing past their pain to get to a place where we can feel better. Asking our child to forgive us before we have done the hard work of understanding them and making amends will not bring healing. Hopefully, we have done a lot of our own healing work, and now we can validate their feelings. We need to give them space and time to do the work they need to do to find their way to forgiveness. Guilting them into forgiving us is not the answer. Begging them to forgive us can circumvent their process and won’t lead to true forgiveness.
When you apologize to your child, simply say, “I’m sorry. I know that I hurt you.”
Don’t say, “I hope you will forgive me, or “Please forgive me,” or “I am asking you to forgive me.” You are putting them on the spot. They will forgive you when they are ready.
This is also the reason why I made sure my daughter knew that I was not requiring anything of her other than she read my letter. I felt it was important for her not to feel that I was asking something she was not ready to give. Your apology should not come with expectations. You are apologizing because it is the right thing to do. What your child does with that apology is up to them.
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.
For the person we have hurt, our sincere apology, the one without the justification, excuses or “buts” allows them to feel safe in a relationship with us again. It signals that we care about their feelings and that we are willing to validate their experience, even if we don’t understand it. It enables them to stop obsessing over their pain and let go of anger, self-protection and blame.
It is also a gift to ourselves. When we are willing to be vulnerable and allow someone to catalog our faults and failures, it teaches us to sit with our pain, accept that we are not perfect, and admit that our intentions missed the mark. This takes a lot of courage. Taking responsibility for our actions will enable us to build self-respect and resilience. It will also enable us to stop defending ourselves and show up for our child the way they need us to.
Remember that apology is for and about your child. Keep yourself out of it, recognize their pain, honor their experience and don’t make excuses. Make sure there is not a whiff of pity for yourself, or blame and judgement against your child in your apology. Be open, be humble and be willing to hear from them, even if what they say does not match your experience. When you can do this, you may just have a good shot at opening a door that has been nailed shut.
You may wonder what the outcome was of the letter of apology I sent my daughter. As of right now, there has been no response. It has been six months. This was really hard for me, at first. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a response, so of course I was disappointed. But I reminded myself that I had done everything I could do. What she chooses to do with it is not up to me. Who knows? It may be a seed that was planted that will bear fruit one day.
Apologize because it is the right thing to do. It is also a tremendous growth tool for you if you do it the right way. Then let go of the outcome. It’s all you can do.