Even When Abusive Parents Apologize, They Don’t

sorry-not-sorry
photo credit: Isabelle

Every adult survivor of emotional child abuse would love to hear the following apology in some version or other: “Child, I’m so deeply sorry for all the pain and suffering and neglect that you endured through my actions or inactions. If I could go back in time, I’d right those wrongs, treat you with the love and respect that you are owed as a human being… You are loved and cherished, and I am profoundly sorry that I overlooked who you are and tried instead to make you what I thought was better. It wasn’t. You’re someone I would have liked to have loved better and known more. I am so very, very sorry. How can I make amends or try to repair this rift between us?

But when the apologies don’t come, the adult survivor thinks maybe the following would be, though not ideal, something to grasp onto: “Child, I’m sorry I was a big fat jerk. I didn’t know! I’m so, so sorry. How can I fix this? How can I do better?”

And then the adult survivor thinks s/he will settle for: “I’m sorry for being a jerk.”

Then downgrades the expectations to: “I’m sorry.”

Then: “Sorry.”

The Apology That Blames You

What most adult survivors of emotional child abuse will receive in terms of apologies is this: [Cue silence.]

But if the apologies do come, they often are in the format of non-apologies. The phrasing after the “sorry” are filled with passive-aggressive additions that let the abused child know that the abusive parent is not sorrowful or regretful or willing to change.

Those pseudo-apologies sound like:

  • I’m sorry that you feel you had a bad childhood.
  • I’m sorry you think that I hurt your feelings.
  • Sorry you don’t think I was a good parent.
  • Sorry that you misunderstood me.
  • Sorry that you thought I meant [this] when I meant [that].
  • Sorry but let’s just agree to disagree about what happened when you were a kid.

Those apologies place the whole issue on the adult survivor. They place the blame for the rift between the adult child and parent on the child. “If the survivor hadn’t taken things incorrectly or been such a candy-ass pansy, everything would be grand! You suck, adult survivor, for having the audacity to have hurt feelings and not see the truth of what was.”

So. No. Those aren’t apologies that you should ever accept.

Apologies That Excuse the Abuser

A little sneakier than the blaming apology is the excusing one. Your abusive parent didn’t mean any harm. He or she had a shitty childhood; who knew what good parenting was? They didn’t want to be neglectful and emotionally damaging to you… so you should “just forgive them and let bygones be bygone.”

Those excuses sound like this:

  • Sorry but I didn’t know any better.
  • Sorry but I didn’t realize that I was an abused child, too, growing up!
  • Sorry but that was a long time ago.
  • Sorry but I was a young parent.
  • Sorry but I was an old parent.
  • Sorry but we did parenting differently in those days.

All those apologies are tiny little pitty parties for the abuser that invite the adult survivor to feel a sense of compassion and sorrow for the abusive parent and assume that the parent would have been amazing! wonderful! loving! if only this or that…

No. Just… no.

Those apologies don’t express true regret for what happened, they don’t show any concern for the abused child, they cushion an excuse, and they lack a desire or willingness to change.

In the Catholic Church, true repentance comprises of acknowledging one’s sin, deeply regret having committed it, resolving not to commit it again, and making penance for it.

Those components are akin to the true apology that should be given by the abuser. So, for example, instead of saying, “Sorry, but I didn’t know any better,” a true apology would be something like “Sorry… I didn’t know any better, but that doesn’t excuse me for how I acted. I’m so sorry for how I behaved. I promise to be more kind and loving from this day forward.”

And then the changed behavior needs to last… The abusive parent needs to have a long, sustained change of behavior before (and if) the adult survivor decides to continue in their relationship.

Why the Abuser’s Past Doesn’t Excuse the Present

Some abusers had horrific childhoods and truly never learned how to be loving, good parents. And so, they carried on and emotionally abused their own children.

That the abuser was abused is terrible. It’s awful that anyone should ever abuse anyone, child or not.

But, that said, the abuser must acknowledge that s/he was an abusive parent. Whether the abusive parent had a horrific childhood or a pampered one, the abusive parent needs to “own” his or her behavior. He or she must acknowledge what was done and be sorry and truly change the behavior for a long, sustained period of time.

To Wait (or Not Wait) for an Apology

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse do not need to wait for an apology from their abusive parents in order to heal.

You have awakened to the truth of a difficult and brutal childhood. Now, take care of yourself! Go to therapy, say your prayers, find a loving and nurturing friend or two to hear you. Read books about what has happened if that helps you make sense of it all. Know you’re not alone in what happened. Know you are strong and can survive it. You can thrive, even.

But do not put your healing on hold for the magic words that you think will fix everything.

Repeat: You must focus on yourself and your own understanding of the past and healing of the present. You focus on YOU now.

The Invisible Scar mailbox is packed with emails from people who write and say such things like “My parents are horrible, abusive monsters and they want their parents to say they’re sorry and change and then they’ll go get help!” or “I’m just waiting for my parents to see what they’ve done! And then, we can work on healing this family!” or “I’m just hoping my parents apologize and then.”

Waiting for that apology is only hurting you.

Waiting for that apology puts all the power on the abusive parents. You are making their words the ones that will free you from the past and heal your pain. You are giving them entirely too. much. control.

Don’t give them that power.

Don’t wait for that apology.

What You Should Be Doing Instead of Waiting

Live your life.

Seriously.

Focus on:

  • Getting a clear understanding of the past by going to therapy
  • Getting a solid bearing of your present by assessing your life (again, through therapy, prayer, and community)
  • Taking care of yourself by eating healthy clean food, exercising regularly, and sleeping enough
  • Spending time with good, kind people who you love and love you back
  • Discovering new aspects of you (such as what you like to do as a hobby or to learn about or sing, paint, act, draw, build dollhouses, whatever’s good and makes you happy)
  • Nurturing good relationships with people you’ve always meant to befriend but had too many demands from your abusive parents
  • Creating a safe home environment (be it a tiny apartment in a big city, a fixer-upper in the ‘burbs, or a trailer) for yourself
  • Giving yourself some emotional distance from your parents

There’s much work, joy, peace, and healing to start on!

What Happens if the Abuser DOES Apologize

If the extremely rare apology is made to you, and it’s a contrite one, we suggest that you do not immediately pounce on it but do all that was mentioned in the previous section. Just… wait.

Here’s why…

You still need to heal, grow, and learn to be you, not the embodiment of your parent’s warped sense of you. You need to focus on being a child of God, on being the you that is, not the you they wanted.

And, as sorry as your parent may truly be, you need time and space to breathe and discover who that it.

If your abuser is really contrite, he or she will understand and quietly work on himself or herself so that, when/if you are ready to resume a relationship, he or she will have grown as people, too.

Because abusers are people. They’re not monsters or devils or pieces of shit. They seem so, they feel that way. They are toxic, so you don’t want to be around them. You don’t want to expose  yourself to all that venom and poison and filth.

But… if one is truly repentant, you can tell your abusive mother or father that you need to continue on your break from the relationship as you work on healing and you suggest strongly that your mother or father go to therapy, too.

If the abuser is sorry, he or she will understand and seek healing, too.

Meanwhile

Continue on your path. Stay awake, stay informed, stay in prayer and therapy.

Onward and upward.


 

Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications.

photo credit: flickr user Isabelle

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40 thoughts on “Even When Abusive Parents Apologize, They Don’t

  1. My father was always very concerned about correct behavior and would regularly confront strangers to give them a piece of his mind, as well as pointing it out to us kids when he saw people doing the wrong thing. But this hot-tempered mathematician was strangely oblivious to his own bad behavior. He treat us and his wife badly and never owned up to it. He spoke to my mom in front of us like she was five years old when she dared to cross him or to simply question whatever it was that he might be talking about. He was always right. He was nice until he wasn’t and we grew up in fear of his angry outbursts filled with scary face and bared teeth. We feared his belt on our bare butts. I suppose he wasn’t exactly a monster. We were nearly fully grown before he drew blood, having expelled my older brother from a Thanksgiving dinner and then chasing him down with his car and finally attacking him, bloodying his face and then lying to us all about it afterwards, turning an unprovoked attack into some kind of “fair fight.”

    Any apology we got was of a type not quite covered in this article: “I’m sorry I lost my temper but you goddamned kids…”

    None of us liked him but we learned to “yes sir, no sir” him to avoid trouble. We all let him get away with his behavior because we were afraid, but also because we wanted to be happy. Because tomorrow might be a better day. We always had and still have a very good relationship with our mother. She was a victim and experienced a very similar upbringing and while I can forgive her for not standing up for herself, I can’t accept that she didn’t stand up for her kids, and still refuses to.

    I was in my 30s before I wrote him a long letter, carefully crafted so as not to be too aggressive, to finally tell him what it had been like. His response was to say that I needed help, because it was all nonsense. Twenty years later, two years ago, while visiting us from California my second wife began to recount to them after some wine and snacks how difficult our relationship had been since getting married a couple of years before. It was the first time since the wedding that we had seen my parents. My father, always keen to offer advice, began offering at will while my wife sidestepped his helpful suggestions. It was only an ear she sought, not advice. As she failed to consider his suggestions with gratitude he became increasingly annoyed and made a final offering of wisdom and then concluding with “…and that’s the last thing I’m going to say about it,” signalling that the conversion (not initiated by him!) was now officially over.

    I hadn’t seen this side of him in years, since I had left the country some 20 years previously, but in that moment I felt he had been quite disrespectful to my wife and although I realize it was an over-reaction, I knew that my wife might not back down so easily after his surprising final remark and I just wanted to avoid an ugly argument. I had had enough of Mr. Hyde and ordered him to leave (back to their hotel). We made up in the days following before they returned home but then, I took him up on his request to let him know “just what have I done that’s been so bad?”

    I wrote him a no-holds-barred letter, much more detailed and very much more aggressive than the one from years before. Returning to my childhood to recall events and feelings was painful and I was shaking from adrenaline as I wrote the letter over the period of several days. After he received it, he of course was shocked at my “lack of respect” and tried at first to counter particular incidents I recalled for him but eventually he just shut down, and as before, told me I needed help and that he had been nothing but a good father “since the day you were born!”

    My brother and sister both became alcoholics at a relatively early age. I, the middle child, have been seen by my parents as the most well-adjusted child, with a Master’s degree, decent job, married and with kids and no addictions. But now it was me stirring things up when we kids were all in our early 50s. Why, after all these years?

    My brother begged me to leave the old man alone, saying “he’s clueless!” My sister kept quiet. It was painful for all of us to be dragged back into it. In my letter I told him I wanted him to know what he had done to us all and wanted an apology, finally, so I and the rest of us could begin to heal. I told him he owed the entire family.

    Why I did it was first, because my father had asked for an explanation, and second, because I carry a lot of anger around and I know the source of it and haven’t been able to get rid of it. So the letter was my last chance, or so I thought.

    He wouldn’t have any of it, and now he refuses to speak with me.

    I want to forgive him but feel he needs to ask for it. Just once, and it’s done. But he hasn’t done anything wrong so of course he cannot offer any apology nor ask for forgiveness. In fact it is now I who am expected to apologize to him for my show of “disrespect.”

    Some people cannot admit to wrongdoing other than on a theoretical level. “Of course I’m not perfect and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Just don’t ask me to name one.”

    I’ve given up waiting for him and am trying to focus on being a good friend to my kids – unlike my father who jeered at that notion and told me as a boy that he thought of himself as my “dictator” and not my friend – and enjoying life, far away from my past, as much as I can.

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    1. The therapist I had mentioned who was really brilliant helped me to work through a series of letters to my stepdad. You know the first couple would be bashing and aggressive. But.. I never sent those one’s. It was a progressive letter. By the time I was done… with her help, it was not nasty at all and very open and loving. Bottom line… I wanted a relationship with him. He did not read any of this but distorted the words and attacked and told his family, and my siblings to ignore and exclude me. This was in 1997… I had to beg for a relationship in the past.. I wanted a healthy, mature, adult relationship. He cannot give what he doesn’t have. In the end.. I’m better off knowing that I don’t have to grovel and be a good compliant little subhuman. He can’t hurt my kids… But, I’d be lying to say it doesnt hurt. it hurts because my kids don’t have grandparents or aunts or uncles. It’s like we have leprosy.

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