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Jul 19, 2023

I often write about topics related to parenting and specifically raising young kids and I always get such great feedback from all of you. Many parents have also expressed to me how they wish when their kids were young, that they knew some of the parenting/relationship things I have talked about here. They will “jokingly” tell me how they feel like they really messed up their kids. The undertone of these kinds of comments is that they feel like it’s too late for them. “That ship has sailed, oh well!” I know that this is a response rooted in fear and shame and they don’t actually mean this.

Firstly, I never want a parent to read my articles and feel ashamed about their parenting, past or present. I want parents to feel empowered through understanding how much influence they can have on the growth and development of their children throughout their lives. Both nature and nurture contribute to who our children are.  I think parents often forget that the majority of the relationship we have with our children is in their adult years when they won’t depend on us for their basic needs anymore. So, yes, those early years are building the relationship we will have with them in the future but also, we have time to do it right! Parenting doesn’t end when our kids’ become adults, it just shifts. Adult children still very much need their parents, only in a different way. Additionally, one of the healthiest mindsets we can have about life is that, as long as we are living, it is NEVER TOO LATE. The beauty of being a human is that we always have the opportunity to learn, grow and change. As the poet Maya Angelou famously said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

For many of you with older kids, you were raising kids in a time when the predominant attitude was that parents were supposed to be the final word and “respect” for (which really just meant compliance to) authority was a must. “Because I said so” was a common refrain.  Apologizing to your child was considered undermining your authority. You weren’t trying to hurt your kids; these were considered good parenting practices.

Nowadays, we still believe that respect is essential but because of better understanding of mental health and emotional development we now understand that the way to genuinely teach this to kids is for them to experience it firsthand through our respectful interactions with them. We know that apologizing to our kids doesn’t undermine us, in fact it gives us even more credibility with them. We also understand the importance of emotional expression and our role in teaching healthy emotion regulation through allowing all feelings, modeling healthy expression of emotion and providing heaping doses of validation and empathy. Kids learn relationship skills from the adults in their lives, throughout their lives.

And so, for this week I want to talk about the process of repair with your adult children; why it’s important and how to do it. By the way, repair with our kids is a life skill so I am speaking to parents of adult kids, young kids, as well as people without kids. If you are in a romantic relationship, want to eventually be in a romantic relationship or just interact with humans you care about, repair is an essential element to healthy and loving connections. Repair tells your loved one that the connection between you is the most important thing. Successful repair enhances trust and safety in a relationship and when we can own up to our mistakes and apologize to our kids and partners, they learn to do the same with us and others. However, as therapist Esther Perel has said, repair and reconnection is not a happy ending; it’s healing. And healing, as always, is not an instant switch. It may take time for your loved one to feel comfortable and go “back to normal” or even start a new normal with you but with consistency from you they will be able to ease into it more and more.

To learn in detail about the art of apologizing, I highly recommend Dr. Harriet Lerner’s book, Why Won’t You Apologize. Lerner describes that an apology is so much more than just saying the words “I’m sorry”. What actually makes the other person feel soothed is when they feel heard and validated; when they feel that there is genuine remorse and regret, a willingness to carry some of the pain that was caused and efforts to make things right, as needed. They want to know that you really “get it” and there won’t be a repeat offense.

If you have read any of my previous articles and thought, “Wow, I really messed up” I want to applaud you first for your self-awareness. Now please take that self-awareness and feel encouraged to work to make things right. Just because you can’t change the past does not mean that you can't improve the future. Most people would not be offended by a loved one's acknowledgment of hurt they caused, just the opposite. Apologies help healing, build trust and foster greater closeness. I want to offer you a loose script of how you could bring up what you regret, begin to repair the relationship and ultimately heal wounds. This script assumes you have an overall healthy relationship with your adult child (no estrangement, majority of interactions are positive, healthy communication practices, see each other somewhat frequently or at least talk on the phone). If you don’t, please seek the guidance of a licensed professional for more specific help.

To start, humble yourself. Even more. And now a bit more. Ok, good. Next, give yourself permission to feel awkward and let your child feel awkward too, especially if you did not typically apologize to them when they were growing up. You may even want to own that by saying “I know this is really not like me, but I’ve been thinking a lot..” and then say something like:

“Hey, you know I was reading this article from a therapist /I've been thinking a lot about (insert topic) and I realized that I have a lot of regret about how I handled things with you. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time/ we didn’t know any different but now I see it was really not okay. I feel really bad for how this might have affected you and I want to apologize for not doing better by you. I really love you and I never wanted to hurt you.”

Be prepared that this statement may not be met with the Hollywood movie script response where tears start flowing and everyone is hugging and life is beautiful again. It might open up some tough, buried feelings for your child and this is why it might be a good idea to consult with a professional before you do this. Something that might be helpful in the moment is to keep the focus not on their response but on your own behavior. “I want to do what’s right and apologizing is right. They are allowed to be angry and express feelings about this. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have said sorry. It doesn’t mean I’m a terrible person.”

Sometimes it is hard for kids to accept apologies from their parents when they have a long history of hurt, inconsistency, or resentment. You may even know what this is like from your own experiences with your parents. Channel that empathy, empathy, empathy. The best apology is changed behavior so make sure what whatever you are apologizing for you are prepared to back up with actions that show that you meant what you said.

If your adult child brings up issues to you, this might feel extra challenging. Often, when parents are met with requests for an apology or accountability, they can become defensive and overwhelmed with shame, guilt or regret. It can feel especially challenging if you never had anyone model this type of repair to you.

Remember, every parent ever is going to do something (or a bunch of things) that will negatively impact their kids. Yah, I’m doing it to my kids too! This is unavoidable. Even more so if you have multiple children, children who need more attention due to medical conditions, learning or complicated emotional needs, decisions that may affect them negatively that you really have no choice in or situations you have limited control over (ex: moving, taking a certain job, divorce etc), or you know, LIFE. We simply cannot meet all our kids needs all the time and they will feel let down by us at some point. The goal is not to make sure to be a perfect parent in that you never disappoint them but instead to be a healthy parent who can acknowledge and repair the hurt when it is brought to your attention (or you notice it yourself).

Harriet Lerner, wonderfully expresses how hard it can be to apologize when you learn that you have really hurt someone.  She says, “In order to apologize for a serious harm, a person needs to have a big platform of self-worth to stand on. From this higher vantage point, they can look out at their mistakes and see them as part of a larger, complex, ever-changing picture of who they are as a human being. But people who do serious harm stand on a small rickety platform of self-worth.  They can’t allow themselves to really experience the harm they’ve done because to do so would flip them into an identity of worthless and shame.”

If your adult child is talking about the (many) ways you hurt them or let them down as a child, they are not trying to shame you. They are looking for connection and repair and even if they do it in a hurtful way, remember that they are still your child and there will always be somewhat of a power differential between you and your adult child - with you holding most of the power for at least 18 years of the relationship. As the parent it will always be your job to hold steady, listen and make things right. That’s right, you will need to apologize more and invest more if you want to have a close and loving relationship with your adult child. This means resisting the urge to say things like:

“I did the best I could”

“Well, I guess I’m just the worst parent ever.”

“Do you know what MY childhood was like?”

“Your sister seemed to turn out just fine.”

“Let’s not dwell in the past.”

“This is very disrespectful; do you know how hard things were for me/us??”

“Oh please, you don’t even know what bad parents are!”

Statements like these tell our kids that we can’t hear their pain because our own pain is too overwhelming and there is no room for their feelings. By doing this you deny their reality and put up a wall between you that will block any chance of a meaningful and authentic relationship. As hard as it may feel, try to hold space for both perspectives; you did what you thought was best and they felt hurt by some of the things you did. Making mistakes does not make you a bad person, it just means you are human and you can make mistakes as a parent and still be a great parent!

Therapist Whitney Goodman, LMFT offers some guidance on things for parents to think about before they apologize to their kids:

  1. Work through your shame, embarrassment, regret, and other big emotions on your own time with a trusted guide like a therapist. You can discuss how you feel with your child, but these feelings are not your adult child’s responsibility to fix or carry. So many parents fumble the apology because they are too busy focusing on how they felt, how hard things were for them, and why they did what they did. If you want your child to understand this, it may be helpful to have a separate conversation about it after they feel heard and understood.
  2. Remember that even though your child is an adult, you are always going to be the parent. Despite being adults, adult children still expect a certain level of guidance from their parents. If your child is bringing up things from early childhood, you can expect them to feel many of the same feelings they felt then while they are discussing this. This means thing may seem like a very big deal to them and not like a huge deal to you. You have a completely different perspective because you were an adult when these things happened.
  3. Try to avoid black and white thinking. Your child is coming to you to discuss their childhood because they want to connect and repair. They are typically not coming to you because they hate you and want to punish you. If they bring up an issue from their childhood, they are not saying it was all bad and they were not saying you were the worst parent ever.
  4. It is never too late to repair. There are children who would have been grateful to hear an apology from their parent on their deathbed. Do not underestimate your power in this moment. Let go of the belief that there’s no way to fix what you did.

I want to acknowledge that there are times when an apology from a parent is not necessarily the correct response in the situation. For example: Your adult child struggles with addiction and is angry that you won’t give them money that you know would only support their addiction; an adult child who is abusive to the parent or other family members and the parent sets a boundary to protect themselves or other family members; an adult child who is angry that a parent won’t provide financial support; an adult child who is angry about a parent’s decision to leave their marriage, move, get a new job etc.

While an apology may not fit here, what is important is trying to understand what it is like for your child. Focusing on compassion and empathy with boundaries can preserve the relationship while still honoring yourself. This may sound something like: “I love you and care about you and I cannot take part in fueling your addiction. I am happy to help you to grocery shop/do laundry/ look for a job. If you want to get help, I want to be there for you.” Or “I know you are mad that mom and I got divorced. This is not something I regret but I also understand that it was really hard for you and you have a lot of feelings about it. I want to listen and learn more about what it was like for you.”

A proper apology focuses on acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person, not your reasons for doing what you did or how terrible you feel. While it is helpful to let your loved one know you feel bad about hurting them, that should not become the focus. Validation and empathy can do wonders in helping someone process and heal their difficult feelings. Also, we can’t demand feelings or emotions from someone and you may have to lean in to acceptance if you realize that your child still feels intensely angry with you. Acceptance does not mean we like it; it just means we acknowledge that we cannot change that specific challenge.

It is also a good practice when receiving an apology to learn to say “Thank you” versus “It’s okay”. Teach your young kids this language and you can even say to your adult kids, “No, it wasn’t okay.”

We all know that parenting is one of the hardest and most important jobs in the world and there is no training for it but you deserve support at every stage. Please take heart when I say, children ALWAYS want to be connected with their parents. You may know this to be true if you have your own complicated parents who you wish weren’t so complicated. A parent child relationship is one of the most unique and influential relationships in a person’s life and, biologically, we are wired to seek out connection with our parents.

If you are a parent, please don’t give up on working on yourself so that you can show up as the best parent for your child at every stage of their life. It’s never too late. Write those words down and put them on your bathroom mirror. If more parents could apologize to their children for the mistakes they made we would prevent and heal generations of hurt.

I want to add a reminder that if you know someone who is estranged from family, do not use this article as a way to pressure them to mend their relationship with their family member. See my for my  blog post on estrangement for more on that topic.

For more learning on this topic, I highly recommend Harriet Lerner’s book mentioned above as well as her two-part interview on Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us, Rules of Estrangement, by Joshua Coleman, How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen And Listen So Your Kids Will Talk by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish. I also highly recommend exploring your own upbringing and thinking about the patterns you were brought up in and how those influenced your parenting style. Some great reads for this are Dr. Bruce Perry’s book with Oprah Winfrey called What Happened To You and Emotional Inheritance by Dr. Galit Atlas. 

Here's to becoming cycle breakers in our lives, believing in the power of change and prioritizing real love and connection with our children at every stage of their lives.


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