When we lift weights at the gym, we create microscopic tears in our muscles. As they repeatedly tear and heal, our muscles get stronger.
Just like muscles, relationships benefit from rupture and repair. We don’t need to be afraid when we feel sorry or have made a mistake – we just need to make sure that we apologize and repair the relationship as soon as possible. With the right approach, each “sorry” can strengthen the relationship.
Of course, finding the right approach to saying “sorry” takes practice, and it can seem even more difficult when in the parent-child relationship. Most of us have not practiced saying “sorry” to our kids. Luckily, it’s never too late to learn a simple formula for saying sorry that can help our relationship with our children and hopefully help them as they heal from their eating disorders.
When our children have eating disorders, they typically have trouble processing their emotions and accepting themselves. While their eating disorders may stem from many places, often parents are first in the line of attack and blame. This is not because we deserve the blame; it’s because our children know that they can get really angry with us and we will still love them. Getting angry at us is often an easy and safe way for them to begin to process feelings in an adaptive fashion.
This is why learning to say sorry to our children can help deepen our connection with them and soften their feelings towards us and themselves in the process. Remember that most of our children, consciously or unconsciously, almost always think that our parental mistakes are their own fault. Our children may point fingers at us, but they are almost never harder on us than they are on themselves.
There are a few different outcomes to talking to our kids about our mistakes. First, our kids may listen thoughtfully and then honestly assure us that the “mistake” we are atoning for made no impact on them. Second, our kids may get angry and agree that we really messed up and are the worst parents ever. Finally, our kids may consider what we are saying and gain insight into the mistake we made and feel more connected to us as a result.
Given that we never know how our children will react to a parental apology, we must first be clear with ourselves that we are not seeking absolution or forgiveness. To do that is to put the child in an inappropriate position. When we apologize to our children we must ask for nothing in return. Whatever our child’s response, the important part is that we offered a meaningful apology, and it was for their sake, not our own.
Here is an apology structure:
- Acknowledge a specific action you took
- Explain the good intentions that drove the action
- Tell our child that we can see the action was a mistake in hindsight
- Offer a heartfelt apology
- Tell your child that you fully accept them and love them
Here are a few examples:
“Sam, I realize that when you gained weight in puberty, I suggested a diet. At the time, I thought that I was helping you. Everyone always talks about dieting, and it seemed like the obvious suggestion. In hindsight, I realize that talking to you about dieting was a mistake. I’m so sorry if I hurt you, and I want you to know that I fully accept you and I love you.”
“Alex, I remember that time when the whole family laughed about your tummy being like Jell-O. At the time, I was caught up in the moment, and we were having so much fun and laughing together. In hindsight, I realize that laughing about your body was totally unacceptable. I’m so sorry if I hurt you, and I want you to know that I fully accept you and I love you.”
“Jo, I can see that your father and I have been pushing you pretty hard to excel at tennis. When you first started, you really enjoyed it, so I guess we just got really excited and pushed for you to be the best. We thought we were doing it for you, but in hindsight, we can see that it became more about our passion than yours. I’m so sorry if we hurt you, and we want you to know that we fully accept you and love you.”
However you approach discussions about your parenting mistakes, please be gentle with yourself. Parental shame does not breed connection. Remember that we are not accepting the burden of causing our children’s eating disorders – we are acknowledging a mistake and letting our children know that we love and accept them.