When your Teenager won’t apologize to you
It’s like being stung by a wasp. Your teen has broken the rules, said something really harsh, or crossed the line in some other way. You’re angry or hurt, or both and you want them to apologize to you.
You’ve raised them to apologize when they’ve hurt someone ; it’s the right thing to do. But so far, you’re not sensing any kind of remorse or empathy from them. You’re hoping they will see the pain they’ve caused you and take the first step toward repairing the relationship.
That’s the right thing to do.
But it’s not happening.
So you’re stuck there, waiting... Wasp stinger still in your arm.
And the longer you wait, the more hurt/mad/reactive/hopeless you become, like scratching the sting. The more you feel like demanding their apology. A part of you starts believing that there’s no way to fix it - that you HAVE to hear them say they’re sorry.
On top of the original wound, you might also be feeling resentful. And powerlessness.
What’s a parent to do?
The truth is that sometimes another person isn’t willing or doesn’t have the capacity to be empathetic about how their actions impacted you.
I know I’ve certainly been in this position, knowing I’ve done someone wrong and not feeling ready to own what I’ve done, let alone commit to doing it differently next time. Not yet. I needed some time to find a good place for it in my heart.
So what might be up for your apparently unremorseful kid?
They might be hurting because of your actions and waiting for you to apologize.
Perhaps they’re feeling ashamed about what they've done and are protecting themselves from the further embarrassment of admitting the harm they caused. Acknowledging when we’ve hurt someone is difficult for most of us, and can be even more so for a teenager who feels like they’re always messing up.
They might not even realize how much they hurt you.
They may be trying to repair the situation through actions instead of words.
The prospect of offering an apology might look like the same thing as saying they were wrong and that their needs don’t matter. They may not have the maturity to recognize what they really needed. Maybe they only know that they needed ‘something’ and impulsively took an action or said words that looked like they’d work.
Whatever the reason, it doesn't need to hold you hostage.
Please don’t limit yourself to believing there’s only one way to get your need for empathy met. When you’ve been hurt and you’re feeling sad/mad, you can lose your sense of agency and forget that your needs can be met in other ways. You can end up stumbling over your own reactions – your heart pleading for an apology, demanding repair or even attacking your teenager. And you can fall into old habits and soon realize this is not the “you” you want to be.
So how can you pull yourself out of this tangle and move forward with your own healing?
1. Accept that this young adult isn’t able to offer a sincere apology at this time.
2. Talk to a friend. Get the empathy you need for the original injury, and also for the heartache of not receiving a prompt direct apology. Let this bring healing to your heart. Let it widen your perspective so that when the time for repair with your teen comes, you will have greater flexibility in how you approach the relationship.
3. Silently send your teenager your love. Keep the door of your heart open, knowing that they are working it through with the skills they have. Let your love shine through to them as they learn how to take responsibility and repair relationships, a skill that will serve them well in their lives.
4. Do your own inner work. Write down what you’re wondering about what was going on for them when they did that action. Decide how you want to describe the harm they caused you. Think about what would be your new boundary so that the same thing cannot occur again.
In this way, what you end up saying to your teen, whether it’s tomorrow or in 3 weeks, is going to be more connected and clearer than any original attempt.
What I’ve come to know is that, when you let go of the fixation on having to have an apology first, there is room for new possibilities. Possibilities like feeling your own agency instead of getting caught up in feeling powerless and insistent.
Being able to decide how you want to the relationship to continue from here.
More resourceful. Clearer boundaries. And more capacity to create a safe, supportive space to reconnect with your teen.
With you on the journey,