You’ve moved out of the family home and asked your spouse for a divorce. You tried your best to make the relationship work for your kids’ sake, but things only got worse. Everyone is understandably angry, devastated, and resentful. There’s so much that went on between the two of you, none of which your child knows about because you are good parents who chose to shield your child from the ugliness. Rest assured, it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to stay in a soul-sucking marriage until your youngest child turns 18. But your child feels abandoned by you and now refuses to visit you, even though you used to be close. You’ve always been a good parent, making so many sacrifices for your child, and now your child wants nothing to do with you. Is it unfair? Yes. What are you going to do?
While I certainly sympathize with your situation, my advice would be to apologize to your kid. I understand that there are a million reasons why it was not all your fault. And there are lots of valid reasons for you wanting to leave. But your leaving really hurt your child. And yes, it would be nice if your ex apologized first. And maybe your ex is trying to deflect blame to you. And maybe your kid is misinformed. And maybe for right now, “all the good” you have done is forgotten. But life isn’t always fair, and you need to choose between making yourself feel better about leaving or helping your child feel better about their parents’ divorce.
Sadly, I’ve seen too many parents refuse to apologize, even though it meant losing their child. I do not believe they made a conscious decision to sever their relationship with their child. They just had a lot of good reasons why they refused to apologize.
I’m not saying that the rejected parent is solely at fault. But someone needs to be the first to apologize. Nor am I saying the parent needs to forever subordinate themselves to their “entitled” children. My next post will be about how the favored parent needs to encourage the child to accept the apology with grace. It is not healthy for the children to be stuck in their anger while life passes them by.
Benefits of Saying Sorry
Saying I’m sorry requires putting your pride aside and being vulnerable. This is scary, but the benefits can be life-changing, especially for your child. They feel validated and heard. They trust you to admit when you are wrong, and are more likely to come to you when they need advice or help. They learn to model good behavior, so that they can apologize when they hurt someone. They learn accountability, responsibility, humility, empathy, and honesty. No one wants that kid who is never wrong. Best of all, an apology helps your child to let go of their hurt and move forward. You don’t want your forty-year-old ranting about their classmate who “screwed them over” in second grade. We want to equip our kids with tools to help them growing into happy, healthy, productive adults.
Apologies Can Feel Loaded
It’s easy to apologize to someone you bump into on the street, but it’s a whole other thing to apologize to your kid, knowing your vindictive ex lurking in the shadows.
Apologies are definitely humbling. We don’t have control over what people do with our apologizes. And if your family relationships have deteriorated to this point, you can safely assume that your apology will be misconstrued. Your ex may see it as an admission of all of your “alleged” bad acts. Your child may see it as you being put in your place. Worst of all, they may feel like that is just step one in your 100-step journey of absolution.
For this reason I recommend that the family find a really good family therapist keep everyone accountable. The family will need guidance. There is a lot of dysfunction and plenty of blame to go around.
Sometimes a bad apology can cause more harm than no apology at all. If you plan to apologize, please think carefully about what you are messaging to your child. A true apology offers no excuses. It focuses on your responsibility and it validates your hurting child. This is not easy. I’ve seen even the most earnest of rejected parents buckle under the pressure of having to sincerely apologize. The following are examples of how not to apologize to your child.
I’m Sorry, but…
This basically means, “I’m sorry, but” let me explain why I did what I did so you can see that I was justified in doing what I did. Just say, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” and let them know that you understand exactly how and why they were hurt.
I’m Only Apologizing for Things I did Wrong!
This means: it’s not all my fault! Your other parent made a lot of mistakes.
We all know it takes two, especially in high conflict cases. Rest assured, your ex will be asked to make amends as well, but your relationship with your child will not move forward until you sincerely apologize.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way
An apology should validate your child’s feelings. You may not think what you said or did was worthy of their wrath (and yes, this generation can be dramatic), but you obviously said something that hurt them. To say, “I’m sorry you felt that way,” really means, I’m sorry you are so overly sensitive that you took an innocent comment I made out of context.
Again, just say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
I’m Only Apologizing Once!
Sometimes a kid needs time before accepting an apology. Allow them the time. You may need to apologize many times, but one of those times, your kid will accept it. It’s not necessarily a one and done situation.
And should you have to apologize more than once, please don’t scream, “I SAID I’M SORRY! HOW MANY TIMES DO I NEED TO SAY IT?”
Just say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
My Ex is Manipulating our Kid!
Most importantly, saying sorry to your child, does not mean you are absolving your ex of all wrong-doing or validating your ex’s delusional assertions.
Usually, when a child rejects a parent, there is a long history of hurt, miscommunication and anger. It rarely happens in a vacuum. At the core of it is a hurting child who needs your compassion. It is important to focus on your child’s healing, not your ex. The goal is for your child to grow into a happy, healthy, productive adult.
Families are complex. Everyone has some responsibility for the problems and it is important that they acknowledge them and apologize.
It’s a process. My next post will be about graciously accepting an apology and moving forward.