Can You Just Forgive Me Already?: Responding To A Parent Who Wants Forgiveness Without Accountability

April 15th, 2024

You may never receive the forgiveness you’re hoping for, and we have to find a way to live and move forward without it.

responding to a parent who won't apologize

The hard truth is that an apology does not guarantee forgiveness or changed behavior. It is often just a commitment to try something new and hope for the best.

We can be upset or hurt; some people will not be sorry. They may not need to apologize, and they may not want to apologize. There are certainly situations where we can feel hurt, and an apology isn’t necessarily warranted, needed, or deserved.

Not all family relationship issues are solved with an apology. Sometimes, the other person will look back at those events and truly say, “I know why I chose that option, and I would choose it again.” Instead of apologizing, we can seek understanding and attempt to see things from the other person’s perspective. For example, a parent might say, “I know you are upset that I got divorced. I do not regret that decision, and see how it negatively impacted you. I want to learn more about how that experience hurt you.”

Some people do not want to change. You may never receive the forgiveness you’re hoping for, and we have to find a way to live and move forward without it.

I Don’t Accept Their Apology

Families can be the source of some of their member’s greatest pain. Unfortunately, mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse happens in families every day. Children are subjected to horrific conditions at the hands of their parents, and to pretend otherwise is a complete disservice to those survivors and victims. Not all adult children will be able to forgive their parents, and not all adult children should forgive their parents. Forgiving them could be a direct path to continued abuse in adulthood.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t want to forgive my parent(s) and I’m not sure I ever could,” I hear you. I have worked with many people just like you. If you’re reading this and thinking, “How could someone not forgive? How could they not move forward?” I would consider you lucky that this seems inconceivable for you.

If you’re on the fence about accepting a parent’s apology, you may want to ask yourself these questions:

  • are the issues that led to the estrangement still there?
  • what work have you done to remedy the issue?
  • what work have they done to remedy the issue?
  • what positive changes have happened in this relationship?
  • what negative changes have you noticed in this relationship?
  • how long have you been estranged or working on this issue? Does it feel like enough time has passed to make the necessary change?
  • if nothing changed, would the relationship work?
  • what are the pros of reconciling? what are the cons?
  • can you safely bring up issues or feelings in the relationship?
  • what is motivating you to reconcile?
  • what is making you pause before reconciling?
  • what would happen if you attempted to reconcile and it didn't work out? Would anyone else be negatively impacted?

The answers to these questions may help you identify how you feel about forgiving a parent and moving forward. I also encourage you to work through these questions with a therapist. It’s okay to conclude that you’re just not ready to accept an apology right now. This doesn’t have to be a permanent decision.

I Don’t Want To Apologize

Parents of adult children will face many situations where their adult child is upset with them that don’t necessarily warrant an apology. These are some examples of those situations:

  • An adult child who is struggling with addiction wants money or other ways to continue fueling their addiction, and the parent says no.
  • An adult child is engaging in abusive behavior within the family, and the parent sets a boundary.
  • An adult child is angry at their parents because they will no longer support them financially.
  • The parent made a decision in childhood that was truly in the child’s best interest (like leaving an abusive partner, divorce, moving, taking a new job, etc.), and the adult child has a completely different perspective of that event.

If you are a parent who feels like you truly do not want to apologize and that you should not apologize, it’s possible that an apology is not what fits here. I would encourage you to first focus on understanding. Instead of digging your heels in and saying, “I’m not wrong. I did my best, and I’m not sorry,” can you learn about your child’s experience and approach it with compassion? Can you set a boundary with love?

If you’re not actually sorry, don’t apologize. If you aren’t going to change your behavior, don’t say that you will.

This is what that might look like to apologize using the examples listed above:

  • “I love you, and I know you are struggling. I cannot participate in fueling your addiction because I love and care about you. If you ever need a meal, I’m happy to feed you. When you’re ready to get help, I’ll be there.”
  • “I know we had a lot of yelling in our house growing up. I am trying to communicate better, which means we won’t scream at each other. If we can’t have a calm conversation, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Whenever you’re ready to have a respectful conversation, I’m here.”
  • “I know we have supported you up to this point. This is not a punishment, and we love you. I want you to be able to support yourself.”
  • “I know you are upset that I got divorced. I do not regret that decision, and I see how it negatively impacted you. I want to learn more about how that experience hurt you.”

Children want to feel understood by their parents, even as adults. It’s possible that your experience of the event is so wildly different from theirs, and you can find a way to see their perspective. If you don’t, the risk of estrangement goes up dramatically.

They Won’t Forgive Me

I love this quote: “Making amends isn’t just saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ It means responding differently from our new understanding.” After you say, “I’m sorry,” you may want to rush through the uncomfortable process of changing the behavior and rebuilding the relationship. Saying “sorry” is so easy in comparison to this process.

The apology is important. What you do after the apology is even more important. Most of the issues that are being resolved between parents and their adult children are long-term issues. These are not things that happened overnight and repairing them will take time. If your adult child does not immediately forgive you, try to be patient and don’t give up. Continue to work on yourself and your behavior and model a new version of your relationship. It is truly never too late, and you never know what will happen. If things continue not to improve or they worsen, it may be a good idea to check in and make sure that you’re both aware of how the other person is feeling.

How To Navigate A Parent Who Wants Forgiveness Without Accountability

Unfortunately, some parents will want forgiveness without apologizing or changing their behavior. They may make this clear by encouraging everyone to “just move on,” defending their actions with other positive things they did that have nothing to do with the issue or denying everything completely.

When you are in this situation, you will have to make a decision about how you would like to move forward. Some adult children will choose to end the relationship, while others will try to change their relationship with the parent by setting boundaries, having less conflict, or decentering them from their lives. If you’re in this position, this is a great time to use the Relationship Checklist: Can You Have A Relationship With Your Parent If They Don't Apologize?

This is also a moment when you will have to accept reality: You have a parent who cannot and will not apologize at this moment.

  • If you accept that as truth, how does that influence your decision?
  • If you decide you will no longer try to convince them or change them, how does that influence your next step?

After you have tried everything you can to communicate respectfully and share your feelings, you have to accept how far your parent is willing to go to help you repair the relationship. This is extremely challenging and can take time to accept. Nothing is permanent and you have to protect yourself. You cannot save this relationship on your own. They will have to participate and share some (in some situations, all) of the burden and the responsibility.