I remember learning from a fairly early age that I was not allowed to mess up and my parents were.
Time and time again I was coerced to do the “right” thing and “say sorry” - even for things that weren’t my fault or that I didn’t even do.
But when my parents had an error in judgment or self-control, it was ignored. There was never any attempt to validate my feelings or repair what had been done or even process it together.
This led to two feelings: resentment and fear.
Fear to be me.
Fear to mess up.
Fear to take up space.
Fear to have a reality different from the adults in my life.
If there is one thing we now know, it is that children are wired to seek safety and fit into their family system. To not rock the boat and ensure my ticket to a nurturing environment, I had to shrink, avoid mistakes, suppress emotions, and give the answers others wanted from me.
Fast forward thirty years and that little girl is still within me. I am grateful for her because without her I would not be where I am now. Yet, as a thirty-seven-year-old woman, I don’t have to keep writing those same stories.
And I’m not. It all started the day I became a mother.
An Act Of Vulnerability
I was listening to a podcast featuring research professor and author Brené Brown when she said something that struck me. “We live in a vulnerable world so we numb vulnerability.”
Isn’t that what apologizing is? An act of vulnerability?
Somewhere along the way, parental generations have been conditioned to believe that vulnerability equates to weakness. Growing up in my home, well, there was no room for my parents to be viewed as weak, for then, how would we kids fear them?
Is this why, when you follow the lineage, repairing the relationship with children has moved lower on the priority list and replaced with ignoring our mistakes and/or deflecting responsibility altogether?
Or maybe it isn’t the priority that shifted but rather the capacity and ability to repair. Like the wounds run so wide and so deep and so far back that we have lost sight of the most important thing we can have with our child: connection.
When we choose image maintenance over connection, we actually hurt our relationship with our children.
The Importance Of An Apology
Children come into this world with the belief that the world is fair. This is actually a crucial part of their development. So when something unpleasant or stressful happens to a child, their brain prioritizes fairness over justice and automatically organizes the event in a way that makes it such.
As a young girl, when I did something undesirable, that thing became a barometer of my identity and worth. I now know this was my attempt to make it fair. I must have deserved what I got because I did this “bad” thing and I am bad for it so it makes sense that I am alone in my room.
I don’t believe there is ever a time that a child deserves punishment for their developmental slip-ups or self-expression. I do believe that children need guidance. That doesn’t mean that we are passive, and it doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect, which is ultimately an exhausting and untenable goal.
Our kids aren’t the only ones who make mistakes and we aren’t the only ones with a perspective. We will inevitably pitfall into whatever patterns we were wired for. We will yell, lecture, wrongly accuse, assume, and do some other regrettable thing. This doesn’t make us bad parents just like our children’s shortcomings don’t make them bad humans.
In those moments, we have a choice - a path to choose.
We can be courageously imperfect, weaving vulnerability and strength together to share our story with our children. We can let our children see us - even the messy parts we would like to sweep under the rug.
Or, we can deflect, blame, shame, and ignore the hurts we have contributed to.
When we choose the latter in the face of our missteps, it has less to do with our kids and more to do with discharging our own pain, discomfort, and not-enough narratives.
But this doesn’t mean our kids aren’t affected. When parents choose not to process and repair with their children, while the parent may feel better, the child’s unworthiness amplifies. Not only was I not worthy of being treated well but now I am not worthy of an apology.
I was listening to another podcast with Glennon Doyle and Ashley C. Ford and they were discussing Ashley’s new book Somebody's Daughter: A Memoir when she said this: “When parents refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoings, children start to question their reality. They become confused about things such as lying and making mistakes and what it means to hurt. Do those things not mean anything when you do it to someone you love or does it just not count when adults do it to children?”
My child-self would answer this question in two ways based upon my experiences. Namely, 1) figures of power don’t have to apologize, and 2) people can hurt who they love without any boundaries or repercussions.
Consciously, children must choose to either pretend the hurt didn’t happen or choose to pretend to forget that it happened. While their thinking body may suppress the memories over time, their feeling body holds onto it and unconsciously replays it throughout their life.
When kids learn they can’t be angry at their parents, they turn that anger inward. That is a big ask with a big price to pay. The cost is self-worth, self-compassion, and self-love.
Breaking Old Cycles
Apologies help children feel safe to make mistakes and to be their whole, vibrant, messy, imperfect selves. They help our children feel seen in a world that too often overlooks the unique worth of its parts.
Ashley C. Ford says that when we grew up in a system where apologies were absent “it takes time to overcome the parts of us that are conditioned not to trust our sense of right, our worthiness, and our sense of justice. The road to get there is through self-compassion and through doing the exact thing we felt lacked in our childhood - loving and trusting ourselves.”
I have compassion for my parents because, really, they, like so many, were just working out their stuff on me as had been done to them. That’s how cycles continue.
But I am not interested in stepping in line. Instead, I hope to be the pivot point, and it starts with being my authentic self in front of my children, and that includes owning my own wrongdoings.
In being my authentic self, I hope my children feel the freedom to be their authentic selves, for when authenticity doesn’t have to fight attachment, we become a system that lives whole-heartedly. Together.
** Written not based on personal experience but as a ghost for a dear friend who was vulnerable enough to share her story with me.