How to Rekindle a Relationship With Estranged Family Members

A woman reunites with her father.

 Momo Productions / DigitalVision / GettyImages

Whether you stopped talking to your dad a year ago because he was critical of your lifestyle, or you cut your sister out of your life a decade ago because her addiction was out of control, ending a relationship with family members is tough.

Estrangement doesn’t always last forever though. A research project between the UK’s University of Cambridge and the non-profit organization, Stand Alone, found that estrangement from fathers was the most common, and that it tends to last an average of almost eight years. Estrangement between brothers tends to last seven and a half years, while between sisters it averages seven years. Estrangement between mothers and their adult children averages five and a half years.

Regardless of how long you've been separated from family, there may come a time when you think about rekindling the relationship. The mere thought of resuming contact might stir up a lot of uncomfortable emotions though—such as fear, sadness, anger, or hurt. But the thought of having a relationship once again might also make you happy at the same time.

When it comes to reconnecting, however, you might not know where to start. How do you reach out? What do you say? And how can you establish a healthy relationship this time?

These strategies can help you make attempts to rekindle the relationship with an estranged family member.

Get Clear on Why You Want to Reconnect

There are many reasons you might want to resume contact with a family member that you’re not in contact with. You likely miss that person. You might think about how it will be in the future if you never reconnect. What if one of you passes away before you have a chance to talk?

Your reason for rekindling the relationship might also have less to do with a desire to become close again and more to do with your eagerness to put an end to uncomfortable family gatherings.

Attending a family member’s funeral when you are estranged from a relative can be awkward. You might find you skip out on family weddings or events because it’s too difficult. You might not even get invited to some events if family members have taken sides.

You might also be pressured by other people to reconnect. Your friends or family members might say things like, “Life is too short to not talk to your mom,” or, “Blood runs thicker than water.” You may reason that having your family member back in your life just might make life easier.

Think About Why Now

When you decide why you want to reconnect—whether for emotional reasons, practical reasons, etc.—think carefully about why you want to reconnect right now.

Has something changed? Perhaps you or the person you’re estranged from has changed. Substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment, for example, might have helped them get to the point where you can have a healthy relationship again.

Or one of you might have developed a different outlook at the moment. A parent who once thought your decisions were shameful may have come around to accept you for who you are.

Your situation might also change things. Perhaps you heard the other person was diagnosed with a serious health problem and you want to attempt to reconnect while you can. Or maybe becoming a parent made you rethink things because you want your child to have a relationship with your family.

Get clear on why it’s so important for you to connect now and how things have changed since you first became estranged. Doing so will help you move forward with better clarity about your goals.

Determine Whether the Past Needs Addressing

In some situations, the relationship can’t be resumed until the past is addressed. Only you and the other person can decide if this is the case.

If you stopped talking to your mother because she dated abusive men during your childhood, you might want to have a conversation about how her choices affected you. Sharing that with her may be important to your healing, and you might think she needs to understand what she put you through before you can have an authentic relationship now.

There may also be times when you decide you need to talk about a situation or issue that led to the estrangement, so you can ensure that it doesn’t happen again. For example, if your brother lost his temper and said horrible things to you while under the influence, you might want reassurance that he’s gotten treatment for his substance abuse issues. You also might want to ensure that he doesn’t actually think those things he said.

In other instances, you might decide that there’s no sense in rehashing the past. Perhaps you and your family member have different values—and that fact hasn’t changed. Or maybe you both allowed something to come in between you—like an inheritance—and you know you’ll never agree on how the money was divided or spent.

In these types of cases, you might simply decide to focus on the future. Think about how you can have a healthy relationship from here on out.

Establish Your Expectations

Before establishing contact, think about your expectations and the type of relationship you’d like to establish in the future. Here are some questions to consider?

  • Do you hope to reconnect in a way that allows you to have a loving, healthy relationship?
  • Are you hoping to spend holidays together?
  • Do you envision regular, ongoing contact?
  • Do you think this person will be available for support? Will you be a support for them?
  • Do you expect that you’ll be able to communicate any time you want?
  • Are you hoping you can attend family functions without things feeling tense?
  • Do you hope to have a friendly relationship that doesn’t involve a deeper connection?
  • Are you looking for the relationship to only involve certain things, such as allowing your children to have contact?

Think about what your hopes are and what you’d expect from yourself and the other person.

Prepare Yourself for All Outcomes

You can control how you reach out to the person, how you present your desire to reconnect, and what you offer to them. But you can’t control whether it’s well-received.

No matter how good your intentions are, you can’t force your estranged family member to rekindle the relationship. And if they choose to ignore your efforts—or they outright refuse to talk—it doesn’t necessarily mean you said the wrong thing or reached out in the wrong way. They simply might not be in the same place you are right now.

Before you attempt to rekindle the relationship, you need to know that you’re able to handle whatever outcome you face.

This may mean having a support system in place of people who can be there for you if you feel let down, hurt, or rejected. It also might mean having some clear coping skills in place to deal with your emotions—like meditation, exercise, or yoga.

You may also want to consider how you’ll deal with the other person’s reaction. If they’re angry with you, how will you respond? If they try to make you feel guilty, what can you do? Having a plan in place will help you feel equipped and confident as you move forward.

Plan What You’ll Say

It can be difficult to know what to say to someone you’ve been estranged from. The first few words you say can set the tone for the future of your relationship, so it’s important to plan your conversation wisely.

Saying something like, “Hi, Mom. I’ve really missed you,” might be a good way to start. The last thing you want to do is dive into an accusation or ask a question that might come across as condescending, such as, “I was just calling to see if you are finally ready to take responsibility for your mistakes.”

Ask yourself what would encourage you to stay in the conversation if someone you were estranged from reached out to you first. And try to hold a similar conversation with the other person.

If you are genuinely looking to rekindle the relationship, be kind and proceed slowly. Here are some ways you might start the conversation:

  • “I know we haven’t had any contact for a long time. But I’d like to change that.”
  • “I am sure hearing from me is a bit of a surprise, but I’m hoping we can have a conversation.”
  • “I’ve missed having you in my life. I’m hoping we can get together for coffee and talk.”

Think carefully about how to reach out as well. A phone call, an email, social media, a text message, a written letter, or an in-person visit are all options. It’s up to you to decide how you’ll best communicate and how the information is likely to be best received by your family member.

Consider the potential risks and benefits of each one. Showing up on someone’s doorstep may work in some cases. In others, it may be too overwhelming or could lead to a heated disagreement.

Communicating via email, text message, or social media, can put less pressure on the other person to respond right away. But your communication may not be as clear when the other person can’t hear your tone or see your body language.

A phone call may cause the person to be taken off guard. But hearing your voice may also remind them that they’ve missed you. Or they may hear in your voice that you’re a different person than you were when you became estranged.

Reach Out

Once you have a plan for how you’ll reach out and what you’re going to say, it’s time to take action.

You might decide it’s best to reach out at a time that has meaning for the both of you. Perhaps you call on a holiday, or maybe you send a letter at a certain time of the year that reminds you of the person.

Maybe you just decide to try and establish contact on the day you feel ready to do so.

Take a deep breath and pick up the phone, or send your message. See what happens.

If your first attempt or two go without a response, don’t despair. The other person may simply need some more time to think about rekindling the relationship.

Don’t overdo it with attempts to contact the other person, however. Calling too many times or sending repeat messages may drive them further away.

Build Trust Over Time

If your family member responds positively to your contact, move forward with the relationship slowly. Don’t expect to pick up where you left off before you became estranged. Instead, build trust one step at a time.

Whether you start communicating by text message only for a while, or you meet for coffee in-person once a month, get to know one another again.

Be a good listener. Validate the other person’s feelings, even if you don’t understand them. Your adult child may insist that you scarred them for life over an incident you don’t even recall. Or your sister might claim it’s unfair you were always your parents’ favorite.

Depending on the reason you became estranged, it may be helpful to establish some rules for this new phase of your relationship. For example, you might want to say, “If our discussion gets heated and you raise your voice, I’m going to end the conversation,” or, “I am happy to let you see the children. But if you put me down in front of them, I’ll have to end contact.”

Your relationship may go through a bit of a “honeymoon phase” early on. You might enjoy catching up with one another, and things might seem to go well. But it’s common for unresolved issues to start rearing their ugly head at some point down the road. If things get tough, consider getting professional help.

Get Professional Help

Whether you decide to get help for yourself so you can establish healthy boundaries, or you decide to go to family therapy to maintain a healthy relationship, professional help can be key to helping you work through issues.

A psychotherapist can assist you with meeting your goals, healing old wounds, improving your communication, and addressing the issues that led to estrangement in the first place. Therapy can help you move forward in a healthy manner.

You might also consider getting professional help if the person you tried to rekindle the relationship with didn’t respond to your efforts. Therapy might help you manage the emotions you experience, ranging from grief and confusion to hope and anger.

A Word From Verywell

Family dynamics are complicated. And deciding to reach out to an estranged family member isn’t a decision you should take lightly.

Sometimes it’s healthier for everyone to cease contact. But if you decide to try and rekindle the relationship, go slowly. Look at it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself, regardless of the outcome.

Was this page helpful?