How to Reach Out to an Estranged Family Member During the Holidays

Patient Expert

'Tis the season to be jolly, or at least that's what they tell us. This time of year is known for holiday parties and family gatherings. It's a time when families gather together to celebrate and enjoy each other's company. That's great if your family gets along well. But what if family life is difficult for you? What if you have an estranged family member whom you haven't spoken to in years? Or what if you are the estranged family member? Then the holidays aren't always so jolly. Is it even possible to change the situation after years of not speaking to one another?

Can you reconnect with an estranged family member?

Have you ever seen the movie “Home Alone”? It's a popular Christmas movie from the early 90s about Kevin, a boy who's accidentally left home alone when his family goes out of the country for the holiday. Chances are you've probably seen the movie at some point. Many people remember a few of the comical scenes, but there is one scene toward the end of the movie that you may have forgotten about.

Kevin is sitting in church talking to an elderly neighbor and they start discussing their families. The man shares that he hasn't spoken to his son in years. They got into a heated argument and ended up telling each other they never wanted to speak to the other again. Now it's years later and they have no relationship. The man would like it to be different, and Kevin encourages him that it can be. At the end of the movie, on Christmas morning, Kevin looks out the window to see the man hugging his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. It's a touching moment, but is that even possible?

While it might not look exactly like a movie scene, it is possible to reconnect with estranged family members. However, it's important to be realistic about the situation. Most likely it's not going to be a simple or quick process, and it's probably going to feel awkward at times. But that doesn't mean it's not worth it. Here are some tips on how to reach out and reconnect.

Tips on reconnecting with an estranged family member

1. Decide if you "should" reconnect in the first place

This may be hard to hear, but not every relationship between family members should be restored. Before taking the steps to reach out to the person, take a few minutes to think through what happened to cause the separation in the first place. Has anything changed since that time? Have you changed? Have you heard that they have? What's the benefit of reaching out to the person? If you want to simply because you think that you "should," it might not be right. But if you have a true desire to have a relationship with this person, then proceed with caution.

2. Decide on the best way to reconnect

This is going to depend on what happened that caused the rift in your relationship. It could be as simple as picking up the phone or it might be writing a letter or email. If you both decide to see each other in a group setting, then it's best to take it slow, focus on keeping it pleasant, and don't dive into old issues when it's not the proper time to discuss them. If you are meeting one-on-one, it might be helpful to do it in a public setting, like a coffee house, so there are other people around and the conversation can't get too heated.

3. Set healthy boundaries

If the person you want to reach out to has hurt you in the past, it's important to set healthy boundaries before reconnecting with them. You need to know what you are willing to deal with and what you aren't. How will you know if the conversation is going down a wrong path? What triggers do you have that you know you need to avoid when dealing with this person? Reconnecting with family is a blessing, but not when it comes at the cost of your own mental health and wellness.

4. Think about how you'll handle apologies

If you did something in the past that you need to apologize for, then be prepared with a sincere apology. Don't expect that they are going to accept your apology right off the bat. But if you are truly sorry, then you need to communicate that and show it with your actions. Words will only go so far.

On the other hand, don't reach out to an estranged family member if you are looking for an apology from them. You can't control the actions, feelings, or thoughts of another person. If they have wronged you in the past, work toward forgiveness even if you need to do so without being in contact with that person. Unforgiveness punishes you more than it does the other person.

5. Don't expect too much

The scene from “Home Alone” is a nice idea, but it's a movie. Reconnecting with an estranged family member doesn't usually happen like that. If you expect to go from not talking for years to instantly having a healthy relationship, you are most likely expecting too much and setting yourself up for failure. You aren't jumping back into a good relationship, you are rebuilding a healthier relationship. This often looks like two steps forward and one step back.

Don't be afraid to seek help

I'm an advocate for getting help from a professional. If you aren't already in counseling, it may be a good idea to reach out to a professional before reaching out to your family member. Depending on the past relationship and willingness of the other person, you may even want to attend family sessions together to help improve and restore your relationship. Don't be afraid to ask for help.