Why Should I Have to Apologize to My Estranged Adult Child?

Learning to address complaints about you is a necessary step to reconciliation.

Posted Apr 19, 2020

One of the most common complaints or criticisms I hear about my work is that I'm either too hard on parents, or that my methods will just reinforce the bad behavior of estranged children—that in encouraging parents to make amends, be empathic, and not respond defensively, I'm doing nothing to force the child to see the parent's perspective or to grow up. In addition, I get accused of reinforcing the distortions in the child's orientation to the parent.

There are times when that criticism is exactly right: Sometimes a parent's continuing to reach out, to be empathic, or to not push back does lead the adult child (or their spouse) to conclude that they have a bigger claim against you than they really do. It's also true that they might respect you less if they're abusive and you continue to try to reach out to them without any limit against the abuse. This is especially true with adult children (or their spouses) who have personality disorders, addictions, or other forms of mental illness.

It may also be better, as I've written elsewhere, to simply stop trying rather than to pursue an adult child who is out of contact.

However, while I don't assume that a child's version of the parent is correct, I also don't assume that the parent's version of the child is correct. Therefore, you're better off assuming that you have some blind spots as you begin this work.

Making amends, showing empathy, and taking responsibility are acts of humility, not humiliation. It's a position of strength, not weakness. It's the ability to say, "Well, maybe you're right. Maybe I missed something really important about you either in how I raised you or how I communicate with you. Let's look at that together and figure it out." 

You may never learn what your adult child's real complaints are about you if you don't start with where they are and accept that there be some validity to their observations. In addition, your humility communicates a willingness to communicate with your child as an equal, which is a requirement in today's parent-adult child relations.

All of this may mean that your child will want to grade you with an F for your parenting and that you or any other parent might grade you with an A or a B. You still get to believe that you did a good job. You're not obligated to feel bad about your parenting. You just need to spend some honest time considering their views.

Finally, allowing some time for your child to blame you may clarify for them what their real issues are. Sometimes blaming a parent is a first step toward figuring out who they are. It doesn't mean that they'll always do it or that it's their ultimate truth. It also doesn't mean that you're signing on to that style of communication forever. But your child may need to be in some kind of dialogue in which you show that you can take a long, hard look at yourself, if for no other reason than to model that such a thing is useful in life.

That's not being an enabler. That's being a good parent.