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Making Amends to Children

How to ask for forgiveness for the mistakes you’ve made

Published on: December 18, 2023

Mom with two children sitting on a bench outside facing away from the camera

Editor’s note: This article was written and sponsored by THIRA Health and is published here with permission.  

The new year is a time of celebration and a time of reflection. Sometimes when we’re being honest with ourselves, those reflections are painful. We may look back at our role as a parent and cringe at some of the decisions we made, some of the actions we took or some of the things we said. We may want to make amends with our children, whether they are adults or still living at home. But what is the best way to do that?

It can be a struggle to figure out how to ask for forgiveness from your children for the mistakes you feel you’ve made. You want to make amends, but there never seems to be a time or place where doing something so pivotal becomes easy or comfortable.

Perhaps it feels inappropriate to address the complexity of your mental health and its impacts with your young children. Or maybe you’re contemplating tackling the difficult conversation with your adult children about the ways your struggles have affected their lives over the years.

Maybe your self doubt or fears keep you from apologizing for behaviors you’re worried you’ll repeat. No matter the circumstance you find yourself in, you’re here now and ready to make your amends to your children — but where do you begin?

Start with them

Begin with your child. Maybe that seems too obvious or simplistic to state, but it deserves time and thought. Who is your child? If you have more than one, who are they as individuals? What matters to them? Outside of the struggles that lead you to want to make amends, what does your relationships look like? How do they feel?

If you can identify the things that matter most to your child, you’ve got a starting point.

You may have a clear idea of what makes you feel shame. That’s important, but when making amends to your children, focus on who they are and what they need instead. If you can’t identify those things, ask. Keep in mind their experience as you shape the way you offer up these amends. If repair is on the horizon in those relationships, you will be able to move forward with a clear path.

Make a plan

Once you’ve got an idea of what you need to get off your chest and what they most need to hear, move forward with developing the way you’d like to say it. Consider what’s most important to communicate and then map a path to state it clearly and in an age-appropriate way.

Whether your child is 8 or 28, they will hold two headspaces when confronted with pain in their parental relationships: where they are now and the space they were in when the event(s) occurred. The inner child is a powerful kind of hurt, so be sure that your amends honor the child in them as much as their actual developmental age.

If you are making amends to children:

  • Bring another trusted adult to support your child as they process this information
  • Keep the details to a developmentally appropriate level
  • Let them know clearly what to expect moving forward
  • Apologize plainly
  • Offer them the chance to share their feelings (even if it’s hard to hear)

The capacity of a child to forgive is astounding, but it shouldn’t be assumed or taken for granted. Children know when they’ve been wronged, and you are here to ask them to understand what you’ve gone through.

For amends to adults or teens:

  • Be sure you approach them honestly and with the level of transparency you’re comfortable with
  • Prepare yourself for hard questions
  • Come ready to listen, not get defensive
  • Remember they ultimately have the agency in how they decide to respond to your amends

Adult children will likely be able to see you in a parental role while maintaining their agency as an adult in the situation as well. Their self-esteem and emotional memory deserve space in those conversations. Honor that, no matter how vulnerable your amends make you feel. You may be surprised to learn some of those emotional experiences are ones your child(ren) can relate to.

Keep it brief

When you begin to formulate the way you’d like to offer your amends, do so succinctly. Children of any age may struggle with staying present in a conversation about the pain they’ve experienced. Adding a layer of complexity about your mental health struggles that may be deeply personal or traumatic only adds to that.

While brevity is key to keep from being emotionally overwhelmed, having one’s attention wander, or either of you resisting the shape the conversation takes, the last thing you want is for either of you to walk away from the conversation feeling like there are things left unsaid.

Be gentle with yourself

While the amends process has much to do with clearing the air and righting wrongs with others, it’s also a powerful tool of accountability for you. You are doing challenging things as you move toward healing, and there is a lot of space for pain and hurt to overwhelm you. Ensure that you are asking for support and leaning into those spaces when you want or need to. There is no shame in needing help to process the powerfully difficult road towards wellness of body, mind, and spirit.

Amends are for everyone, including yourself. You’ve walked a difficult path, and you’re doing something difficult now. The lifelong struggle of mental health can be exhausting, but we believe in you. Keep marching forward, as you are worth the battle for your healing, and so are your children. If you’re looking for support on your journey with acute or chronic mental health concerns, THIRA Health has options for every step.

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