This post was inspired by three families that I have been seeing in therapy recently. In each of the families, there are significant ruptures in the parent-child relationships. In one family, a prepubescent child self-identifies as transgender, and the mother has behaved in very rejecting ways. In another family, a teenager has cut all ties with her father after learning that he had an affair that led to her parents’ divorce. The third family is a woman in her 30’s and her father. Since the death of the woman’s mother, the pair has had a very difficult time navigating their relationship. Without the mother to mediate the always-strained relationship, many past resentments are surfacing.
In these three families, I have observed an interesting and very challenging commonality. Alone with me in my office, all three of the parents have been able to acknowledge their misdeeds and to hold themselves accountable. Yet, when I have opened up the possibility of apologizing in some way to the children they have hurt, I have been met with resistance, sometimes stony and sometimes passive.
Here are some of the comments these three parents have made in response to my suggestion that they express remorse to their children:
- I’m the parent; I should not have to bend/grovel.
- I know it was wrong, but I didn’t know what else to do. [“it” refers to very harsh punishment]
- She’s been treating me horribly; do you expect her to apologize to me too?
- I’ve tried but I just can’t make myself submissive to her like that.
Even though I understand to some extent how these parents feel, there are two reasons why I believe it is essential that they apologize:
1. Admitting mistakes and making apologies are highly important social skills best taught by modeling. At some point in our lives, we all need to apologize to a friend, a teacher, a roommate, an intimate partner, and/or a boss, probably many times. When parents take ownership and apologize for their own mistakes and misdeeds, they are teaching their children essential life skills.
2. These families have come to therapy, at least in part, because of strained parent-child relationships. An acknowledgement of and an apology for past wrongdoings is no guarantee that relationships can be repaired, but there is often no way forward without them. An apology can be a very powerful first step in the healing process.
I certainly do not advocate offering apologies without integrity. But, if, as a parent, you know that you have behaved badly, it makes sense to acknowledge what you have done and then to say you’re sorry. Below are some examples of earnest apologies that would apply in the strained parent-child relationships described above. I have only taken sentiments expressed privately to me by the parents and reworked them into expressions of remorse.
- I know I have been unkind to you since you told me you want to live as a girl and I am very sorry for that. Please understand that it is taking me some time to understand this. No matter what, I love you, and I am going to work really hard to accept your choices.
- It was very wrong of me to get involved with another woman, and I know how badly I have hurt you and your mother. I ruined my marriage, but I really hope you and I can start to rebuild our relationship.
- I am truly sorry for some of the things I did to punish you when you were a teenager; I know I was wrong. I hope one day you can understand that I was doing the best I knew how and that you will be able to forgive me.
Don’t wait for huge misdeeds to model saying you are sorry. An apology after you lose your temper, forget to sign your son up for baseball tryouts, or lose the earrings you borrowed from your daughter will go a long way to teach your child an essential life skill as well as to keep your relationship strong.