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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
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