Childhood innocence ends when they first realize we are not the ideal parents they have envisioned. We need to own our mistakes with our children and acknowledge that we have fallen short of their expectations. If we continue to be imperfect parents but never apologize, they will build a wall of painful memories through which our love and affection won’t penetrate. An apology is the heart’s attempt to connect through the emotional vulnerability of sadness and remorse. We owe it to our kids, no matter what age, to step up, be the bigger person, and allow them to see our love in this way.
When Should a Parent Apologize to a Young Adult?
Here are some opportunities to show love through an apology. We should apologize when we:
- Fail to live up to a standard we have set for ourselves.
- Learn from our young adult about a painful memory of something we said or did.
- Have been dishonest or failed to disclose something of significance to the young adult.
- Neglect to tell the truth and keep our promises.
- Fail to hold our children accountable, made excuses for, or overindulge them.
- Are not present and give them the time and attention they need.
- Miss an opportunity to encourage them in an area of interest or passion.
There are many other opportunities to love them by apologizing for something we have done or not done, whether intentional or not. Beyond knowing when to apologize, it’s essential to know how.
Although I won’t comment on the expression of “fake news,” I can say that I observe many instances of “fake apologies.” These often make the headlines when a public figure has been accused of some inappropriate behavior or wrongdoing. Have you heard these fake apologies?
- “I’m sorry, but you must have misunderstood me.”
- “I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
- “I’m sorry that this has been a problem for you.”
- “I’m sorry that you misunderstood my intentions.”
But perhaps the most common non-apology is “I’m sorry but… “followed by some qualifier that negates the first clause. I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you deserved it. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, but you haven’t been there for me. I’m sorry I was not a perfect parent or the most common statement- I’m sorry, but I did the best I could. On the last point, I don’t believe any of us can say we did the best we could unless we were perfect parents. Keep all “buts” out of apologies.
What Constitutes an Effective Apology?
First, a parent has to be willing to be empathetic, humble, vulnerable, courageous, and speak sincerely from the heart. A desire to express a heartfelt apology out of love is more important than the mechanics of apologizing. But there are some aspects of a sincere apology beyond the right spirit.
- First, an apology identifies some past action for which you take responsibility without any “buts.”
- Second, you express your remorse and regret for what you have done.
- Third, you indicate that you are genuinely sorry for what you have done and will not do this in the future.
- Fourth you offer to make some amends if this is possible.
- Fifth, you may request forgiveness but understand that this may not be given, and your apology cannot be contingent on forgiveness.
We need to do all of this without excuses, explanations, or in any way blaming the other person. I favor writing out an apology and then reading or summarizing it and giving the young adult the letter. It becomes a permanent reminder of your apology, remorse, and, desire to heal the relationship. Here’s one example of a well-formed apology.
My son, I want you to know that I am sincerely sorry for calling you a lazy, inconsiderate parasite. There is no excuse for calling you names. You didn’t do anything to deserve this. I love you and feel terrible for saying this. I can’t change the past, but I can promise that I will never do this again. I hope you will be able to forgive me now or sometime in the future.
For further help with the parental gift of apology, check out my book Apology: The Gift We Give Our Young Adults.