Don’t Be in a Hurry to Apologize to an Estranged Adult Child

One of the most popular things for parents to post in our private Reconnection Club forums is a draft of their apology letter to an estranged adult child.

And while I love that our community is wise and supportive enough to offer valuable feedback on these important efforts, there’s a mistaken emphasis on apologizing as the first or only step towards reconciliation.

I’ve seen members helpfully tell newcomers, essentially, “Tina says we should apologize, so here’s a link to the apology course.”

I appreciate the spirit in which this is done. Our members are incredibly kind and helpful to one another, and I love that.

​However, I have to set the record straight around apologies…

​​Not every parent needs to apologize to their estranged adult child. Nor are most parents who send apologies early, really ready to back up new words with new behaviors.

In fact, the apology should be among the last steps parents take to repair these relationships. (Listen to the 3-step Road Map to Reconnection series.)

In most cases, the bulk of what’s needed for repair happens long before you contact your child.

A Means to an End?

Understandably, parents who recognize the impact of a good apology are eager to send one. They want to get the relationship back to normal as soon as possible.

But even after your adult child is back in touch, the relationship will never be exactly as it was. It can’t be, because something about it was more negative than positive for your child.

The relationship must change. And an apology is not enough to make that happen.

If you’ve already tackled much of the personal work that’s needed to fulfill the implicit promise of an effective apology, then it may indeed be time for you to send one.

But if thoughts about new behaviors/dynamics in the relationship are more aspirational than achieved at this point, one runs the risk of over-promising and under-delivering. This is a setup for a relapse of estrangement — something to avoid if at all possible.

An excellent apology sets the bar high for the parent, in what may be early days yet.

Bide Your Time

We can change, no matter how old we are. But change is messy much of the time. It’s often two steps forward, one step back.

Parents’ understanding of themselves, their children, and their shared relationship tends to deepen over time as they work their way through our library and utilize outside resources, including therapy.

For most, there are no extra points awarded for apologizing early. Even very good, heartfelt apologies often go unanswered — leaving the parent feeling hurt, confused and resentful. This can be devastating if you’re not prepared.

As a next step, take a few weeks to breathe, calm your stressed brain, get quiet and reflect. Think about the changes you intend to make in how you interact with your adult child(ren).

How will you achieve consistency? With whom can you practice new behaviors for a few months before promising to do so with your child?

It’s often more effective to send a belated apology that rests on a foundation of actual change, than an early one as you’re starting to dig deeper into the work.

(Successful changes usually become apparent in other relationships before they’re applied with an estranged adult child. Many parents speak of improved relations with other adult children, siblings, friends, spouses, etc. based on their personal work.)

A number of our members have shared regret over sending an apology too early, before they had the benefit of more understanding.

Don’t Force It

If you’re approaching the apology as a means to an end, your adult child will (correctly) interpret that way. Feeling manipulated, she may not be inclined to accept even long-awaited, honest words.

No matter how much you mean what you say, your early apology may appear to be nothing more than the result of coaching. And let’s be honest: Members do get help in our forums polishing their messages. But your child knows how you normally talk, and will likely spot any “enhancements” that came from somewhere else.

Once you’ve done a lot more personal reflection, however, your apology will flow from you without excessive effort. Your heart will know how to express itself, and you’ll choose your own words effectively.

Apologies hard-won from dark nights of the soul resonate with recipients. No amount of tinkering and polishing in the early days will produce the depth and breadth of an apology based on healing and growth in the parent.

So please don’t rush to apologize. Attend to your own healing as a first, necessary step to reconnecting with your estranged adult child. (That’s an affiliate link to my book on Amazon.)

You’ll  know when you’re ready.

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