Should Alienated Grandparents Write a Letter of Apology?

Each School of Thought Has Valid Arguments

Sad grandmother wonders about a letter of apology.
Alienated grandparents should think seriously before offering an apology. Jupiterimages / Getty Images

Parents who are alienated from adult children and thus cut off from grandchildren are sometimes advised to write a letter of apology. There are two distinct schools of thought about apologies, however, and each side has some powerful arguments. In addition, those who opt for an apology should take care less they worsen the rift rather than making it better.

Who Wants Reconciliation?

Several surveys have polled both parents and their adult children to determine if reconciliation is really desired and, if so, how it should be achieved.

Here are some of the results of the surveys:

  • The adult children are much more likely to break with parents than the other way around. 
  • Both parents and children say that they would like to reconcile.
  • The adult children typically say there is little chance of reconciliation, whereas the parents are more hopeful about the possibility.
  • The adult children say that what they want most from estranged parents is for them to take responsibility for their actions.
  • The parents often say they cannot take responsibility because they do not know what they did wrong.

These statements do not present a very positive outlook for reconciliation, but surveys show that most family estrangement has an intermittent pattern. Periods of estrangement alternate with periods of relative stability. This pattern indicates that family estrangement is seldom as intractable as it appears to be. Family members who are capable of short periods of harmony can work on stretching out those periods.

Two Attitudes About Apologies

Perfect parents don't exist. All parents have faced situations that they ended up handling in less than optimal fashion. So what could it hurt to apologize for those blunders? That is the philosophy embraced by those who recommend apologies.

Grandparents who resist the idea of apologizing often ask, "How can I apologize when I don't know what I did wrong?" Others are more definite: "I didn't do anything wrong.

Why should I apologize?" While not claiming to have been perfect parents, they feel that their mistakes were nothing out of the ordinary and certainly nothing requiring regret.

Reasons to Apologize

The best reason to apologize, of course, is that it just might work. For many grandparents suffering the emotional pain of being cut off from grandchildren, that's all the reason they need. Some grandparents choose to take this step so that they know that they left no stone unturned. This could give them solace in the future.

Reasons Not to Apologize

Some grandparents don't like apologizing when they don't really feel contrite. They feel dishonest and untrue to themselves. Another very real danger is that any admission of fault may simply fuel the grievances of the other parties, justifying their anger and prolonging rather than shortening the estrangement.

What Not to Do

Those who choose to apologize should follow certain guidelines to give their overtures the best chance of success.

Most of the time it's best to make apologies general. Here are some statements that others have found helpful:

  • I'm sorry I didn't try harder to understand your feelings.
  • I wish I had made our relationship a higher priority.

    Another approach is to emphasize the future with a statement such as, "I'd like a chance to do better going forward."

    Occasionally, however, when a child has a particular resentment, it's fruitful to address it. For example, a parent whose infidelity caused a divorce and thus caused pain to children could certainly apologize for those actions. 

    Delivering the Apology

    When it comes to delivering the apology, an old-fashioned letter may just be the best method. The very speed of electronic communication sometimes inspires users to respond too quickly. A letter invites reading, re-reading and contemplation and may lead to a more reasoned response. On the other hand, a letter is a piece of evidence that can survive a very long time. Grandparents should strive to be sure that they say nothing that they might regret at a later date.


    More to Think About

    Grandparents who are still confused about the causes of their estrangement can learn more about the reasons for conflicts with adult children. They can also read advice from adult children about how to mend fences