I recently talked with my son and mentioned that I didn’t believe in spanking, but when his older sister lied to me, I sent her to her room and told her to prepare for a spanking. I’m not sure if the actual spanking ever occurred, but if it did, the impact paled in comparison to waiting in her room.
After I recounted this one-time use of corporal punishment and how this was inconsistent with my beliefs, my son said – “You spanked me once.” I was shocked to hear this and asked him to tell me when. He was able to describe the specific setting and the fact that my mother was visiting at the time. No part of my memory could recall this incident. I immediately apologized to him and said that I regretted this. In this case, I did not doubt the accuracy of his memory even though I could not pull it up in my mind. I then asked if there were other times where he may have experienced hurtful criticisms or actions on my part that still bothers him so I could apologize for these. In this case, I had no memory of the event, but sometimes our recollections of an event don’t match our kid’s.
Perceptions are Our Reality
Perceptions are our ways of thinking about or understanding someone or something using our senses. When dealing with adult memories of childhood, it’s not a matter of what happened or whose perception is right or wrong except in verifiable physically or sexually abusive experiences. We may remember the event differently or claim that we didn’t intend to be abusive physically or emotionally. We don’t get a pass on the need to apologize based on our “good intentions.” In the simplest example of standing in line at the supermarket and bumping into the person in front of us “unintentionally,” we often instinctively say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.”
Back to the memory of the child. Unless you had a video camera rolling to validate what happened, each person’s perception is their reality. When young adults harbor anger and resentment toward a parent, their anger keeps them fused to the parent in an unhealthy way. This fusion can also be true if a parent harbors anger or resentment toward a young adult child. In either or both cases, when such underlying feelings exist, there will be a tendency to avoid the other or become defensive and reactive when contact is necessary. It’s a sign that one or the other or both have not attained a level of healthy emotional separation from the other. We can act in these situations, but it begins with recognizing two facts:
- We can’t change the young adult, but we can and should change ourselves.
- We should start by trying to understand our young adult’s experience.
it is essential to listen nonjudgmentally and non-defensively with a level of compassion and empathy that validates how the young adult feels about a past incident. “You believe that when I grabbed you by the ear, you felt abused and humiliated and hated me for this.” Such a reflective statement acknowledges the experience and the feelings of the young adult. We may not validate their recollections, but we can validate how they feel.
Listen for what is not being said – underlying themes driving their anger and reactions. I argue that young adults need to stand up to their parents and push back on a parent’s views and actions, past or present, to which they disagree. It’s part of the establishment of an independent “I.” Sometimes, they do this in clothes, tattoos, or arguments challenging the parents’ views. Also, underneath the young adult’s anger and attack is hurt and sadness about the lack of closeness to the parent. Please keep these points in mind that can soften the tendency to take things personally.
An apology is one of the healing practices that parents need to strengthen or employ to address unresolved issues with the young adult that keep the young adult and the parent negatively fused or enmeshed. One of the failed launch positions that a young adult may take is where they continue to fuse to the parent through anger and resentment. They blame the parents for their past and present troubles, consciously or unconsciously, and, as such, can’t move toward self-sufficiency and independence.
Suppose the parent engages the young adult in a defensive, angry, or otherwise reactive manner. The parent contributes to the fused status and, as such, is also in an unhealthy emotional state. An apology is a gift we give to our young adult to enable the young adult to let go of the anger and resentment, but it’s also a gift we give ourselves by reducing our need to defend and justify our actions. The estrangement of parents and young adults is a growing problem where parents and young adults are sacrificing the relationship for the need to be right.
Why Apologize Even if you Believe that Something Didn’t Happen?
Apologizing is the loving, and right thing to do that will set us as parents free, free our young adults, and help restore the relationship. Unless you are a perfect parent, there is always room for an apology, and we need to acknowledge our imperfection. Such admission permits the young adult to recognize this as well. It’s the loving thing to do because it says no matter what I did or didn’t do or what you experienced as a child, I want to show you love and take responsibility for my parenting.
This is another form of modeling that challenges young adults to take responsibility for their actions. It’s important to understand that listening and trying to understand your young adult’s position and apologizing are not admissions that the other person’s perception is entirely accurate. Apologizing is a way of elevating the message that love and the relationship are more important than being right.
- A Letter from A Grieving Mother - November 14, 2023
- Book Recommendation: Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict - November 13, 2023
- When a Young Adult’s Transition to Independence is Complicated by Special Needs - October 27, 2023