By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Parents of estranged adult children often ask me about an “amends letter.” That’s probably because they’ve heard an amends letter to estranged adult children touted as an effective way to reopen communication channels and regain a relationship with adult children who have gone “no contact.” It’s a popularized tool that I’m surprised hasn’t gone to the trash heap along with things like tobacco companies using doctors to promote their cigarette brand.
Does that sound harsh? The reality is that bad advice from seemingly reputable sources is nothing new. As I discuss in BEYOND DONE, experts used to recommend putting babies to sleep on their tummies, which has now been associated with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). They also advised tired nursing mothers who were worried about inadequate milk supply to supplement with bottle feeding—even though less suckling decreases milk production. I’m sure there are many other examples of ill-advised recommendations in the annals of parenting advice history.
While an amends letter might be useful if you’ve done something that needs forgiveness and you’re dealing with reasonable individuals, making unwarranted apologies to the unreasonable only feeds the beast. As I say in BEYOND DONE, it’s my opinion all the subservience and babying trains adults with difficult personalities that they can get away with bad behavior—and even be rewarded for it—which is a disservice to the individuals and to all society.
Do amends letters to estranged adult children add to the problem?
Once upon a time, doctors didn’t realize smoking caused health problems, but a 1940s spike in lung cancer provided a clue. Even so, it took until 1964 for the U.S. Surgeon General to report that smoking caused lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and chronic bronchitis. Even then, tobacco companies continued to raise a smokescreen of doubt around whether the evidence was conclusive.
Today, more estrangement in the news and increased traffic to websites such as mine make clear that adult children estranging from parents is on the rise. Internet searches reveal adult children (and even some therapists) who villainize parents, blame them, and approve of the rejection. Perhaps some of the so-called expert advice, including the amends letter, worsens the problem.
As I mention in my first book on this topic, Done With The Crying, parents of the 1980s were advised to build their children’s self-esteem , even apart from achievement. While I’m not against championing people for who they are, I also believe bad behavior deserves a reasoned and realistic response. Sharing an adult child’s delusional view of our parenting, or our character, and capitulating to irrational demands to preserve a “relationship” that no longer fits a healthy definition doesn’t make sense.
In BEYOND DONE, I offer examples for when apologizing may be appropriate. However, parents (just like anyone else) do well to recognize when they’re being raked over the coals for revisionist history that doesn’t add up. Sure, there could be a misunderstanding, and if that’s the case, reasonable adults who want to mend a rift will find a way to talk things out, continue to love one another, and move into the future with mutual respect. Sometimes, though, that’s not possible, and I would no more offer you a cigarette as recommend some other ill-conceived advice that hurts you or keeps you stuck.
Amends letter to estranged adult children … or to someone who really deserves it?
Kind, supportive parents, who nevertheless find themselves estranged from adult children, have frequently been the ones who have repeatedly swallowed their pride and reached out to an unkind adult child who should have been the one to say “sorry.” I hear from parents every day who know the pain of walking on eggshells to avoid conflict that always erupts from volatile offspring at some point anyway. It’s appalling to me how many adult children abuse parents’ loving kindness, and bank accounts, until the parent is physically ill or no longer has financial resources for them to exploit. And it’s reprehensible when adult children use their own kids as tools to gain authority, compliance, or control over grandparents who care so deeply and know they enrich those young ones’ lives.
By the time parents read my books and articles or join the membership support group for parents of estranged children here at this site, they have usually come to realize all the time they’ve spent, or wasted, working on trying to fix something they didn’t break. Something that makes no sense. They know they were good parents. Without the rose-colored glasses on, they have come to understand how much they have been neglecting themselves. They can see that they deserve their own kind care and a life of joy and peace.
Sometimes, though, in looking back at all the wasted energy, money, sadness, and time that stole happiness and connection from their other relationships and worthwhile pursuits, parents can start to beat themselves up. They might tell themselves they should have known better. They should have seen the truth. Or they ask themselves: How could I have been so dumb? Why didn’t I wake up sooner? The thoughts dishonor the beauty of who they are—loving parents who have, for a lifetime, given to their children.
In my Five Ways to Cope with the Holidays presentation, one of the ideas was to look toward the New Year—now. And that’s how an amends letter to yourself can help. Let’s close the door on all the ways we hurt ourselves to try and make things right.
You will have your own unique amends to make to yourself, to learn from, and to move past. And this doesn’t have to apply only to estranged adult children. Sometimes, their disregard or abuse—and our compulsions toward them—can teach us more about ourselves, our other relationships, and life.
Get started writing an amends letter … to yourself
To help you get started on your own amends letter to yourself, first spend some time reflecting. Find a quiet, private space and, as you look through the following bullet points, write down what comes to mind. The more detailed you can get the better you will be prepared to let old habits go. Also, if any of this begins to feel too emotionally burdensome, give yourself a break. Get up and take a walk where you can enjoy nature. Even looking at the sky helps. Obtain support as needed. Here you go—
Consider times when you:
- neglected your own needs in favor of another’s
- dishonored or disregarded your values to avoid conflict or gain approval
- gave when you knew you shouldn’t
- said “yes” when your gut said “no”
When, or in what ways, have you ever:
- felt compelled to comply or give in
- ignored the voice of reason inside you (or that of a trusted companion)
- done something you viewed as stupid but did it anyway (and later berated yourself for it)
- took action you now understand was irrational or unwise
- given money you couldn’t afford to give or knew you shouldn’t
Of course, we can all look back in hindsight and see more clearly. Don’t get hung up wishing you could change the past or engaging your inner critic. What you can you do is use the insight for your better, more self-compassionate and intentional future. We’ll talk more about that later.
Don’t limit yourself to the bullet points either. Whatever comes up as you reflect, use it for your own forward momentum, toward a freer future where you are kind to yourself. Once you feel your self-reflection is complete, write yourself a letter. Make amends with your past self. The one who did things because you felt compelled to keep the peace, obtain love, or gain approval. The one who put your needs behind those of someone who hasn’t appreciated such sacrifice.
You can format your letter however you want. Here’s one possible example:
Dear Me (insert your name, address your highest self, or your inner wisdom),
I apologize for all the times I said “yes” to someone else when it meant saying “no” to myself.
I’m sorry for pushing aside my own feelings because I worried what my daughter/son/others would think.
I forgive myself for not listening to XX, because s/he was right about XX. I should never have . . . .
Your letter can take a more traditional form with lots of detail. Or, you can stick to the basics as above. This is your healing journey. So do what’s best for you right now.
End your letter with a statement of forgiveness that pulls everything together and sets an intention for a new beginning. Here’s an example:
“I forgive myself for all the ways that I have hurt myself by—fill in the blank—and vow to take better care of myself from this moment forward. I will recognize, hear, and honor my inner voice. I will pay attention to that feeling in my gut (head, neck, chest … you define this and fill in the blank). I will honor me.”
Make a few more relevant statements of self-forgiveness as you see fit. End the amends letter to yourself with gratitude and love for all that you have learned. You can now use these insights to enrich the rest of your days and enjoy the ones who are around you and love you. Finally, keep your letter in a safe place. You can refer to it later and even make changes as you grow in knowledge and compassion about yourself and your life.
A turning point
Writing an amends letter to yourself helps you usher in a new beginning. Imagine this moment, month, or year, as a turning point or as the end of an era. Leave behind the baggage of fruitless efforts and self-neglect. Stepping into the future in a new, bold, and self-kind way can take some practice, but you’re worth your own best effort.
Recently, in a members-only live event in the community peer support group, parents of estranged adult children contemplated the nature of decisions and what it takes to carry out plans for their own wellness. I asked a question that also works well here: Are you “all in” for your own well-being and peace?
In a December 15 live event, parents used the ideas in this article, and their amends letter to themselves, to move solidly into the New Year, focused more intently on their own strength, well-being, and peace. If you’d like to join events such as this one, or watch replays on your own time, join the membership community.
Regardless, an amends letter you write to yourself will help you in letting go of estranged adult children and in releasing the pain. It’s time to be self-compassionate, focus forward, and be “all in,” for your future. (Hint: That “all in” thought was part of another recent members-only event.)
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