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How To Have A Meaningful Relationship With an Estranged Child

How to have a meaningful relationship with an estranged child or relative


It is every parent's dream to have an excellent relationship with their adult children, but all too often, they find themselves increasingly estranged from them. To the degree you may or may not have anything to do with that, it usually helps to know how to carry on meaningful conversations with them that make the relationship stronger and deeper rather than making it more adversarial and damaging.


Think of your relationship with your child as tending to a garden. You can only expect the garden to bear fruit if you have tilled the soil and prepared it with the appropriate nutrients. Likewise, your relationship with your child will only bear fruit with the proper nutrients and care. Without this care, our children on the other end can feel like a project rather than seeing them as a person.


People have a built in need to feel accepted and loved, and we are more open to those who see us not as a project and treat us with respect in a dignified personal way. If you get a lot of pushback from your child, it is likely that your relationship with them is not as deep and healthy as you would like. You need to step back and nurture the relationship.

It would help to understand how the attachment system works. I speak to the attachment system here. When it comes to human relationships, it is not simply the logical arguments of a particular person or their personality that convinces them to see things our way, but the depth of the connection.


It is not necessary for people to agree with us in order for the attachment system to work. As long as we feel that the other person gets us and is willing to be with us, disagreement will not undermine attachment. With that in mind, you have to remember the key to having a successful relationship is growing it so that it is big enough to carry certain conversations.


The Gottman Relationship Institute studies relationship dynamics. Their studies have found that to deal effectively with difficult topics and situations, people need relationships that are twenty times more supportive, encouraging, affirming, loving, and kind than critical. In general, the lower the ratio between positive and negative exchanges, the more defensive the response will be.


When we understand that the other person in the relationship is supporting us and is coming from a good place 19 out of 20 times, they are much more likely to give us the benefit of the doubt. Building the relationship means establishing, re-establishing, and maintaining a positive-to-negative ratio that reaches a 20:1 ratio as close as possible.

With my oldest in college, she calls home (mom) often. Much more than she calls me. What do my conversations look like with her compared to her mother's? "What are you doing to pull your grades up?" "Are you balancing your time appropriately with friends and school work?" "Have you tried this?" "Are you doing this?" Can I blame her for calling and talking to her mom more than me? No! I wouldn't want to talk to me either!


You should not attribute pushback or distance to contempt or communication issues but rather to a downward shift in the positivity-negativity ratio.


The beautiful thing is that this works for all our relationships. The four horsemen in relationships and marriage decline are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. If you see an increase in these, you will likely have a downward shift in the 20:1 ratio. Most likely, it is inverted. I call it the street preacher phenomenon. If your relationship looks like a street preacher on the street corner yelling through a bullhorn handing out gospel tracts, it is likely to have as much of an impact as the street preacher.





Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places emphasis on family systems theory and attachment theory working with families and children.


His education and training has qualified him to sit for and pass the state of North Carolina Licensing Examination Board. His training in family systems theory, attachment theory, personality disorders, psychological pathology, and complex trauma gives him the necessary qualifications to assess, diagnose and treat mental health disorders. He also has background and experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment pathology in the family courts. Odell is happily married for 18 years. He is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.

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