"I Guess I'm Just The Worst Parent Ever"

April 8th, 2024

When parents and their adult children find themselves at odds about the past, conflict only intensifies, and repair becomes impossible.

asking parents for an apology

All families experience conflict; the only way to manage the conflict is through respectful communication, apologies, and changed behavior. But, when parents and their adult children find themselves at odds about the past, conflict only intensifies, and repair becomes impossible. Parents and their adult children have their story and they’re sticking to it.

I have noticed that, when met with the request for an apology or accountability, some parents become so overwhelmed with shame, guilt, or another big feeling that they say things like:

  • “I guess I was just the worst parent ever!”
  • “You think you had it bad? You should see the other parents out there. You’re lucky.”
  • “I did the best I could.”
  • “We can’t change the past. There’s no reason to discuss this.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “You have no idea how hard it was for me to raise you.”

All of these responses scream: I can’t hold space for two realities, my feelings are so overwhelming, and I can’t hear you, I don’t want to discuss this.

Remember: Every parent on this planet will encounter a challenge in life that will impact their kids. If your adult child brings up their childhood, it’s not because they want to shame you or call you the “worst parent ever.” They are very likely seeking connection and repair.

At this moment, you have a choice: listen and take accountability for your part or put up a wall between you that will inhibit connection until this issue is repaired.

It’s Not Too Late To Apologize

Whenever I write about apologizing, I always like to go back to the work of Dr. Harriet Lerner, the author of the book Why Won’t You Apologize? In an interview with Forbes, Lerner describes what we want to hear in an apology, “It’s not the words “I’m sorry” that soothes the other person and allows them to feel safe in the relationship again. More than anything, the hurt party wants us to listen carefully to their feelings, to validate their reality, to feel genuine regret and remorse, to carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and to make reparations as needed. They want us to really “get it” and to make sure there will be no repeat performance.”

If you are a parent who is apologizing to their adult child, read this before you apologize:

  1. Work through your shame, embarrassment, regret, and other big emotions on your own time with a trusted guide like a therapist. You can discuss how you feel with your child, but these feelings are not your adult child’s responsibility to fix or carry. So many parents fumble the apology because they are too busy focusing on how they felt, how hard things were for them, and why they did what they did. If you want your child to understand this, having a separate conversation about it may be helpful after they feel heard and understood.
  2. Remember that even though your child is an adult, you will always be the parent. Despite being adults, adult children still expect a certain level of guidance from their parents. There will always be a power differential between you and your adult child - with you holding most of the power. If your child is bringing up things from early childhood, you can expect them to feel many of the same feelings they felt then while they are discussing this. This means things may seem like a huge deal to them and not like a huge deal to you. You have a different perspective because you were an adult when these things happened.
  3. Try to avoid black-and-white thinking. Your child is coming to you to discuss their childhood because they want to connect and repair. They are typically not coming to you because they hate you and want to punish you. If they bring up an issue from their childhood, they are not saying it was all bad, and they are not saying you were the worst parent ever.
  4. It is always possible to repair. I have worked with clients who would have been grateful to hear an apology from their parent on their deathbed. Do not underestimate your power at this moment. Let go of the belief that there’s no way to fix what you did.

How To Craft A Solid Apology

  • Seek understanding. Ask questions, listen, and really work to understand why they feel the way they feel.
  • Try not to get defensive. If you start to feel defensive, pause and try:
    • “I feel myself getting defensive. Can we pause for a second?"
    • "I can feel myself wanting to get defensive here, so I want to make sure I understand you."
    • "This is a really sensitive topic for me, and I feel like I'm going to start getting defensive so I just need a minute to collect my thoughts."
  • "I am feeling attacked right now. This is something that's really hard for me to talk about it."
  • "I know I tend to get defensive when I'm feeling criticized."
  • "I'm feeling defensive. Can I explain why?"
  • Focus on what you did, not on their response. Do not say, “I’m sorry you were hurt. It was just a joke.” Instead, say, “I am sorry I said something offensive.”
  • Back it up with action. Saying “sorry” and not changing your behavior does nothing, making it difficult to trust future apologies. Make sure to clarify exactly what behavior needs to change and commit to realistic behavioral change.
  • Do not demand forgiveness. When a parent hurts their adult child, it may take them a while to understand the pain, believe the apology, and recognize any behavioral change. I know you want to be forgiven; remember, this will take time.

Here is a formula you can use to create your own apology:

  • I apologize for (specific understanding of the event).
  • I understand (specific issue that was created or the impact).
  • I am going to (behavior that will change moving forward).

When the apology is laid out like this, it sounds very simple and straightforward, but these conversations rarely go like this. You may have to have this conversation several times and find several ways to repair the damage that has been done. A pattern of behavior will take longer to correct than a one-off event. What matters is that both parties feel like things are moving forward.

When They’re The “Worst Mom Ever”

Some parents struggle immensely with emotional immaturity and self-worth. This means that any attempt to discuss the past will be met with self-deprecating defensiveness (like the examples I shared at the beginning of this email). If this happens, you have a few options.

  • End the conversation. If you feel like the defensiveness is too high and you cannot get through to your parent, you may have to stop talking about this for now or forever.
  • Try to lower their defenses tactfully. Some parents are initially defensive, and then they can come down. You can try to start the conversation with a soft start-up like, “I love you Mom, and there is something I want to discuss,” or “I know you tried so hard, and I want to have a better relationship with you.”
  • Accept who your parent is and what they can offer you. Some parents simply do not have the emotional maturity to handle these types of conversations. This is painful, and there is peace in accepting this.
  • Explain why you want to have this conversation. Sometimes it can be helpful to say, “I want to talk to you about this because I love you, and I want to be closer.” Clarifying that you do not want to punish them is helpful.

Parental Gaslighting

Gaslighting is an insidious tactic employed over time to make people doubt their reality. It is a form of abuse, and it does happen between parents and their children. Gaslighting helps the abuser gain more power and control. It also protects them against information threatening their perspective or ego.

People, including parents and adult children, may begin to gaslight unconsciously to protect themselves from pain and control the narrative. I want to be clear: there is a big difference between disagreeing on the facts + how something felt and trying to convince someone that what they believe happened did not happen. It is very common that parents and their adult children will remember things differently from the past because they have different perspectives of the event. This type of denial may evolve into gaslighting when it becomes a long-term act of manipulation that forces someone to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them.

In her book Gaslighting, Stephanie Sarkis, PhD shares some of the commonly observed behaviors of a gaslighting family member.

  • They get angry when you confront them about anything.
  • They use other people to get your attention or communicate with you.
  • They may not like when you have independence.
  • They try to compete with you or live through you.
  • They threaten to cut you off, especially when things are not going their way.
  • One person in the family tends to placate them or apologize for them.
  • They struggle to be happy for you.

They Apologized, What Now?

If you clearly communicate how you’re feeling and have a conversation with your parent, there’s a great chance they will choose to apologize. Now, you’re ready to (maybe cautiously) move forward and rebuild the relationship. Here are some things to remember:

  • Change takes time. This is especially true if you are working on lifelong patterns.
  • People will mess up. What matters is how they handle any slip-ups.
  • You must also be accountable for your behavior while you repair and rebuild. Try to continue working on your reactions and your communication.
  • Pay attention to the good stuff. When someone starts to change or does something you like/appreciate, tell them.
  • Take note when things aren’t improving and behave accordingly. You do not have to forgive and forget. If things aren’t better, it’s ok to change course.
  • Keep communication open. You should continue discussing things, reminding each other of what is important, etc.