Why Apologize? And How to Do It Well

Well over half of all estranged adult children, according to one website, would like to receive an apology from the parents they’ve rejected.

Of course, many of those parents would appreciate receiving an apology themselves. Their hearts are broken by what feels like callous disregard and disapproval from their estranging children.

This creates a dilemma.

The situation is not unlike marital counseling, in which both partners feel equally in need of empathy and understanding from each other. There’s often a stalemate until someone decides to put their own needs aside for the moment, and go first.

When one partner softens, opening up to the other’s point of view, only then does the knot begin to loosen. Change becomes possible.

It’s natural to wish for a shift in your child’s perspective. But when adult children estrange themselves, they’re not motivated to “go first.” They don’t want to consider their parents’ pain, because they’re too focused on their own.

We know from research that estrangement from family is virtually always in the name of self-protection. The estranger feels hurt in some way by the parent(s) she’s cutting off. Hurt people hurt people. So the parent gets hurt by the child’s efforts to protect herself.

Understanding that estrangement serves as self-protection is the key to creating change.

If the relationship is to be repaired, any conciliatory gestures are unlikely to come from the estranger. He doesn’t believe change is possible, which is why he’s employing the nuclear option.

The situation will remain a stalemate until someone goes first. Meaning, someone offers understanding and empathy to the other.

If your adult child is holding himself apart from you, as much as you may be hurt and confused, the ball is actually in your court. You have so much more power than it feels like you do. You can make huge strides in repairing the relationship, so that your child no longer feels the need to protect himself with distance.

The Apology Cure

Time itself may be a factor; if your child just needs some time apart, there may be nothing you can do to speed things along. But to the extent that a negative relationship exists between you in the mind of your child, there’s much you can do to change the picture for both of you.

The simplest, most effective way to improve relations, is to begin with an apology.

Apologies should do at least 3 things:

1. Be specific
2. Include unqualified accountability
3. Express remorse.

Don’t let the phrase “unqualified accountability” in #2 above put you off. We’re talking about what goes into an apology, not what actually happened, or whose fault it was. Good apologies convey 100% accountability, along with a generous dose of regret.

Let’s see these in action…

Good: I’m sorry if I hurt you. (Remorse, but little accountability)

Better: I know you suffered from some of the choices I made, and I regret it deeply. (Remorse AND accountability)

Best: You were often caught in the middle when your dad and I were arguing, and I can only imagine how distressing that must have been. I deeply regret that I allowed that to happen to you. (Specificity, remorse, and accountability).

Think about how you would feel on the receiving end of an apology that lacks these three basic components, e.g., “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Make sure your apologies contain the elements above for best results.


There’s usually no need to fret about taking on too much responsibility for things that upset your child. In most cases, over-apologizing is harmless, and far better than under-apologizing.

The exception to this is the parent who is always apologizing.

When apologies are too frequent and too global, they start to become meaningless. In these case, adult children are more likely to be annoyed than soothed by an apology.

Still, even the over-apologizer can benefit from making sure that all apologies include the 3 components already mentioned.

For much more on how to apologize well, you’ll find our apology course in the Reconnection Club library.

Not a member? You can still view a sample of this informative course: Click here to see Lesson 1.

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