This Is Why Your Parent Won't Apologize

April 1st, 2024

If your parent struggles to apologize, it’s not because you were a bad kid.

apology from parents

Some parents struggle to apologize to their adult children. This can be extremely difficult for adult children who have spent time and energy communicating their feelings to their parents.

If your parent struggles to apologize, it’s not because you were a bad kid. It’s likely because they lack the skills to self-reflect, take accountability, or hear your perspective.

This article will explore:

  • Potential reasons for a parent’s lack of apology
  • Why the adult years are so challenging for parents
  • What parents of adult children need to explore about this unique relationship
  • How to tell your parents you want an apology
  • How to accept when your parent cannot apologize

This May Be Why Your Parent Won’t Apologize:

  1. Low self-worth. People who refuse to apologize often have extremely low self-worth. Their fragile egos cannot absorb the blow of admitting they were wrong.
  2. They did not learn how to apologize. People raised in homes where apologizing was seen as a weakness or where healthy apologies were not modeled may struggle with apologizing themselves.
  3. Admitting they were wrong is too painful. Shame is so powerful that some people would rather lose everything than admit they were wrong.
  4. They can’t separate their actions from who they are. People with a fragile sense of self often believe that if they admit to doing something “bad,” they are bad.
  5. They are uncomfortable with the emotions that arise when apologizing. Some people avoid apologizing to escape anger, sadness, or other threatening feelings.
  6. They grew up with “mother/father always knows best” messaging. Some parents were led to believe that apologizing to their children makes them inferior and weak. In an attempt to maintain their perceived position of superiority, they will withhold any apologies.
  7. They are not sorry. Some people genuinely believe they did their best and/or they were not wrong. Nothing you say will change their opinion. Honestly, they’re better off not apologizing if they’re not actually sorry.
  8. They are not willing to change their behavior. If someone feels their apology will require them to change, they may avoid apologizing to avoid changing or being held to a new standard.

The Adult Years Are Some Of The Hardest For Parents

We have left parents feeling absolutely unprepared for some of the most challenging years of parenting: adulthood. We focus so much on those early (and critical) years, leaving parents high and dry when their children turn 18.

The absolute flood of online parenting information has also left adult children and their parents utterly confused. What was once seen as a “best practice” is now frowned upon by parenting experts. I empathize with parents looking back on those early years of time outs, “toughen up” rhetoric and cry-it-out sleep training. I understand when they say they tried their best. Many parents love their children and were simply parroting what their pediatrician, neighbor, or a popular expert told them to do. Things were very different 20 years ago. We didn’t have message boards and parenting experts at our fingertips. Many of these parents are just people who had kids and did exactly what their parents did.

While some parents were simply doing what was best at the time, there were also emotionally and physically abusive and neglectful parents. Regardless of the why behind their behavior, these parents may have left a tremendous impact on their children that resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, etc. These parents tend to have the most to discuss with their adult children. These parents also seem to struggle the most with these conversations.

As a parent of an adult child, you have to understand

  • You can have the absolute best intentions and still cause harm.
  • You can follow the parenting books and still have a bad outcome.
  • Things will happen in life that are not your fault and are difficult for your child.
  • You and your child will live through some of the same events and have entirely different experiences.
  • There is a power differential despite both of you being adults. You will always see the past differently because you have context for those decisions that your child did not have at the time.

There is a misconception that if a parent validates their adult child’s perspective, it means they’re accepting they were a “bad parent” or they’re somehow admitting responsibility and taking the blame. Things happen in a child’s life that aren’t necessarily a parent’s “fault” daily. People struggle with their health, relationships end, and money gets tight. No parent makes it out of parenthood without their children being impacted by life. The people who are close with their parents in adulthood aren’t close because their life was perfect and nothing bad happened. They’re close because their parents can hold space for two realities simultaneously. They recognize that “I worked very hard to keep food on the table, and I know living with financial insecurity was sometimes challenging for you. I tried hard, and I can see how you were impacted.”

Every parent on this planet is going to come up against a challenge in life that will have an impact on their kids. For better or worse, it will be part of their story. What matters is how we handle those challenges as a family.

How To Tell Your Parents You Want An Apology (And Changed Behavior)

Because of the inherent power differential between children and their parents, many adult children want their parents just to know that they want to hear an apology. While this would be nice, it isn’t always the most effective strategy. Becoming an empowered adult means communicating how you feel with your parent; then, they can choose to be receptive or not.

I recommended clarifying what you would like to discuss from your childhood. It might be an event, a pattern, or something you’ve discussed in therapy. It’s essential that you have a good understanding of what is impacting you and why. You want to begin the conversation with the ability to describe your experience and a clear goal in mind. Do you want an apology? Is there something you want them to understand? Do you want a specific behavior or pattern to change?

Once you know what you’d like to discuss, find a way to begin this conversation with your parent. I think it’s wise to set aside a time when you’re both feeling calm. Then, you will want to approach this conversation with respect and kindness. I know you might be resentful or angry, but starting off this way will likely lead to defensiveness.

Here are some examples of conversation starters:

  • “I know this might be hard to hear, but I really want to talk about (this thing from my childhood) that has been difficult for me.”
  • “I have been discussing my childhood with my therapist, and I was hoping we could talk about X.”
  • “I know it was tough for you when we were young, and X had a big impact on me. Can we talk about it?”
  • “I have been thinking a lot about when X happened and wanted to discuss it with you.”
  • “I know you tried, and X was really hard for me.”
  • “I appreciate everything you did for me growing up. I have been thinking a lot about X, and I think it would help us if we talked about it.”

The goal here is to start a conversation with your parent and create a safe space to share how you feel. I want to reiterate this: you can set up this conversation perfectly and express yourself, and they still may not seek understanding or offer an apology. There are so many parents who are unable to hear these words because of their own wounds, shame, or emotional immaturity. You need to control your side of the equation and hope for the best.

It’s also important to express what you would like to get out of this conversation. Do you want an apology? Do you want them to listen and understand? Are you looking for some sort of changed behavior? For some parents, this might feel like “rehashing the past” or something that “can’t be changed now.” So, while this isn’t a burden you should carry, it’s, unfortunately, something many people are saddled with in adulthood. We have to empower ourselves to clearly articulate and ask for what we need.

How To Accept When Your Parent Won't Apologize

When a parent can't apologize to their adult child, it's not because they're always right. It's because they can't admit when they were wrong.

Some parents will never apologize. They will never admit they were wrong. They will never try to rebuild. They will never try to understand their child’s point of view. This can be immensely painful for the adult child, and it significantly impacts the relationship.

  • Growing up with a parent who refuses to apologize can be confusing. It makes sense if you are confused. No one is perfect, and no one is free from recognizing mistakes, apologizing, and doing better. You’re not absolved of this responsibility, and neither are your parents. You can create more safety and certainty in your life as an adult.
  • Growing up with a parent who refuses to apologize can make you doubt yourself. When someone refuses to acknowledge a different perspective or seek understanding, it can make you feel like you’re going crazy. In adulthood, you can understand what happened to you and find validation and understanding.
  • Growing up with a parent who refuses to apologize can make you blame yourself. Your parent is supposed to protect and provide when you are a child. Whatever happened to you was not your fault. As an adult, you can take responsibility for your life and let go of what is not yours to carry.

If your parent cannot apologize, you may have to find a way to move forward without hearing those words. It’s painful, and it’s possible. Your life should not end because of their inability to see your perspective. You can learn, do better, and be better despite their inability to do that for themselves.