How Kids Can Respond to Parents’ Apologies

An invisible force can have a definite and lasting impact.

How do we know the wind exists?

Many of us have heard the 19th century poem “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Georgina Rossetti.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

We know the wind exists because of the impact when it blows, even though it is an invisible force of nature.

Have you ever stopped to consider the many relational invisible forces that exist all around us and govern many of the ways we think, feel and behave? Consider invisible relational forces like love, connectedness and trust.

However, there is a fascinating invisible force that may explain why children have the responses they often do when parents apologize to them – the forces of invisible loyalties.

In my last post, I invited readers to consider whether it is ever appropriate to apologize to children when parents realize they have made a mistake, or done something harmful or shaming to their children. My conclusion is, yes, there are many times when it is appropriate for parents to make these kinds of apologies.

Apologies tell kids that parents are human and can make mistakes, that when you make a mistake it is appropriate to own up to that mistake and apologize for it, and, taking it a step further, to ask for forgiveness or at the very least, to make amends. Apologies have the potential to invite important discussions about the nature of mistakes, forgiveness and amend-making.

I mentioned in my previous post how a friend was puzzled when she apologized to her adult son for the times she had spanked him when he was little. She shared that at first he appeared to be very uncomfortable with her apology and then was quick to reassure her that she had never done anything wrong by spanking him. She noticed that he didn’t really want to talk anymore about it.

I think she was hoping that her apology might lead to some discussions that could be healing for both of them, as he took in the fact that she was acknowledging something she did that she now considers wrong or inappropriate or even hurtful to him both in the moment and perhaps later in his life.

I think she wanted to free him from the negative impact that spanking might have had on some of his core beliefs about himself.

Invisible loyalties can make some conversations challenging.

What I suspect is that such a conversation might have tapped into his invisible loyalties to her. As his beloved mother, he did not want to see her as flawed or having made mistakes.

Many times children put their parents on a pedestal, and if parents spanked or otherwise punished them, they assume they deserved it and the parents were right. An apology can contradict that belief and push against invisible forces of loyalty to the images and beliefs that become deeply ingrained about who their parent is and was.

So what is a parent to do for a child who is reluctant to accept an apology or see that a parent might have made a mistake?

One response is to acknowledge how hard it can be for any child to see his or her parent is human and therefore capable of making mistakes. Parents can guide children in their reactions by sharing with them that their child (whether a young child, teenager or adult), doesn’t need to defend the parent who is apologizing but rather is invited to appreciate that the parent’s perspective is that they did something they now regret and believe could have been harmful.

Giving children of any age permission to not have to embrace the invisible loyalties that can interfere with receiving and processing an apology is a way to invite children to address the deeper wounds that can happen when parents make parenting mistakes, even the most well-meaning mistakes.

And it may take time for that to sink in.

Invisible loyalties can be powerful forces, much like the wind.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you think of some of the ways invisible loyalties have impacted you, making it difficult to change your beliefs or behaviors? How has that impacted you as a parent?
  2. Can you think of ways you might explain the idea of invisible loyalties to your children?
  3. Can you help them to see that sometimes these loyalties are healthy and helpful while others might be harmful?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Some additional references and resources:

Invisible Loyalties by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, first published in 1984 looks at Invisible Loyalties in Family Systems Invisible Loyalties: Life-Giving or Life-Taking?