When we speak about relationships, we normally think in terms of romantic relationships—how to build them, how they break down, how to fix them. But as a society, we speak a lot less about what is often a more fundamental, even foundational, relationship—our relationship with our parents. Having a flawed, broken relationship with your parents isn’t unusual, but it’s almost worth taking the time to try to put it back together. “Repairing a broken relationship with your parents is always worth a shot," relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells Brides. "There are the occasional parents who are truly toxic and abusive, and those relationships are often worth severing for your own mental health. However, more often than not, there are some good parts of family relationships that are worth trying to repair.”
But rebuilding a relationship with your parents can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Any kind of broken relationship is difficult to repair, but with a parent-child relationship it’s often more nuanced—not only is it a relationship between two people with all of its own complexity, it also has the inherent complication of the growing pains that come as a children transition into adulthood.
There are so many intricate dynamics in the relationship between parents and their adult children: realizing your parents aren’t perfect; your parents accepting that you don’t have to listen to them or that they can’t help you anymore; a parent becoming dependent on you. But if you want to start to take some step to mend the relationship, here’s what you should keep in mind.
Try To Start The Dialogue With Warmth
First off, if you’re going to reach out, then you need give a feeling of openness—that you’re looking for reconciliation, rather than look for a fight. You don’t need to ignore the fact that your relationship has been rocky—in fact referencing that can help—but also make it clear you want to mend things.
“Reach out, be direct, and be warm,” Hartstein says. “Tell your parents that you feel badly about fighting and being estranged.” If your relationship has gotten to this point, there’s a good chance that some hurtful things have been said and done on both sides, so if you want your parent or parents to open themselves up to you again, then you need to create a safe space for that to happen. That will probably mean start with small gestures—a coffee, a dinner, a family gathering—and allowing you to warm up to each other over time.
Avoid Hot Button Issues—At First
Part of making a safe space means not getting right back into the argument. Now, it can be very tempting to jump in with both feet, with the attitude of, “I want us to be close again, but only once I resolve this." It's natural. You want to feel heard, and to feel validated. And that’s fair—but you’re not going to get it right away and you're not going to get it by being adversarial.
“It often helps to not directly approach whatever topics have been hot buttons in the past,” Hartstein says. “Talk about areas that are common ground and not contentious at first.” If you can cultivate a strong relationship again, or at least the foundations of it, you’ll both be more receptive to the other’s point of view. Communication is always good—and you should get to the issues in time, but you need to create the fertile ground first.
By the same token, if your parents try to pick a fight or start rehashing old issues immediately, you can say to them, “I want to get to that, but I’d really prefer if we just focus on being a family for now. Let’s start small.”
Don’t Be Afraid To Seek Professional Help
Family relationships are so densely, intricately complex—they form over years and decades, with this intractable power. So, if either you or your parents can’t seem to maintain a friendly relationship but you want to improve, it may be that a professional can help you. “Chances are, your parents would also like to repair this broken relationship so they are likely to meet you halfway,” Hartstein says.” If you find that, even with the best intentions, it’s hard to have a conversation that doesn't devolve into arguing, a few sessions with a family therapist can go a very long way.” It may feel extreme and, at times, it can make you feel intimidated and vulnerable, but having an objective, third-party referee can be invaluable.
Unless there's abuse or toxicity, it's almost always worth it to try to rebuild a parent relationship. The trick is to not expect catharsis and healing right away. Focus on the fact that you want to reconnect, rather than the things that drove you apart in the first place. Move slowly and with compassion—and get help if you need it.