Expert Tips for Reaching Out To Estranged Family Members
It's not easy, but it can be worth it.
Drifting apart from family members can happen for a lot reasons: political disagreements, lack of communication, differing parenting styles. Sociologist Karl Pillemer, PhD,’s 2020 book Fault Lines revealed that roughly 67 million Americans are dealing with familial estrangement. Reasons for this rift included conflicts over money (such as inheritance), in-laws, or a difference in values. A key finding? Most survey volunteers reported being unhappy about this.
The good news is, there are steps you can take to rebuild these relationships – if that’s something you want. We spoke to three licensed therapists on things to consider before reaching out to estranged family members. Let’s discuss.
Taking the First Step
Celeste Labadie, LMFT, says taking the first step to heal broken bonds begins with asking yourself, “Why is this important to me?” This will help form the basis of where to begin. She adds that if your why has an expectation on the other person, you must dig deeper.
“‘This is important to me because I need to hear an apology,’ is never a good reason to reach out to someone,” she explains. “It may be true, but it won’t help you receive that apology if you go in expecting them to do something for you.”
Instead, Labadie gives two positive examples of how to look at the situation:
- “This is important to me because I want to be a kinder and more loving person on this planet.”
- “This is important to me because I want to understand them and resolve our differences with curiosity about their world.”
The Next Steps
Asking yourself why you’re looking to reconnect with them is a huge start. Colleen Wenner, LMHC, MCAP, LPC, outlines four key points to remember during the process of reconciliation.
Be clear and concise in your communication.
It’s important to be clear and concise when communicating with estranged family members. You’ve planned what you want to say, making sure to have your facts straight, and given thought to your feelings. Now it’s time to share what led you to contact them. Be straightforward — don’t try to justify or explain yourself as this will only lead to more confusion. If they ask questions, answer honestly but keep your responses short and simple. You’re not trying to convince them of anything; rather, you’re sharing what’s on your mind. Remember, it’s their choice to accept or decline your invitation to reconcile.
(Bonus: Sue English MSW, LCSW, CADC, suggests offering specific experiences to start the reunification process. Try meeting for coffee on a Saturday or taking a walk at the local forest preserve. “If the plan to reconnect is left open-ended, chances are the opportunity won’t materialize,” she notes.)
Be understanding and respectful.
Don’t go into the conversation expecting too much from your family members. They may not want to talk about certain things at first, so give them time to think before asking for specific details. Also, don’t assume they’ve already processed their feelings. You might be ready to talk, however, they might not be. Respect the fact that your family members may need time to work through some stuff themselves.
Don’t expect immediate results.
You’re most likely to get little or no response at first. It could take weeks or months for family members to respond, depending on the situation. Don’t give up hope, though: there’s always a chance they’ll decide to talk with you again.
In the event that you don’t receive a positive response, don’t falter. Seeking a relationship with your estranged family member may require several attempts at reaching out. Your goal should be to maintain your connection without being pushy or demanding.
Take care of yourself mentally and physically.
You’ve made the decision to reconnect with your family members, which means you’ve taken an active step towards healing. This can take a mental toll on you, especially if you haven’t seen them in years. Be sure to relax and recharge. Try to avoid getting caught up in negative thoughts, and focus on the positives. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones for support as you prepare to start talking with your estranged family members.
Keeping yourself healthy will improve your outlook on your situation. You’re in control of your life, and you deserve to feel good about yourself and the decisions you make.
Last But Not Least
Mending a relationship with a family member is not easy. But, Labadie recommends asking yourself what you miss most about them. This will help you begin the conversation in a sincere and authentic way.
“Healing old relational wounds in order to reconnect does not just happen when the grief over the relationship gets smaller but rather when their capacity to accept one’s flaws and imperfections gets bigger,” English reassures.