05/18/2015 01:58 pm ET Updated May 18, 2016

6 Ways to Rebuild a Relationship With Your Children


For millions of Americans, Mother's Day was not a joyful event. Just before the holiday, I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, talking with addicts, some of whom have ruined their relationships with their children. We talked about what, if anything, they could do to rebuild those relationships. When I left that group, I thought of my own tattered relationship with my mother. Many mothers waited for cards that never came. That can change next year.

There are all sorts of reasons why parent-child relationships fall into disrepair, yet reunion is possible. Children, by their nature, want to love their parents. That longing never leaves. If you are someone who has destroyed your relationship with your child(ren), here are some actions you can take to try to rebuild those bonds.

  1. Apologize. If you did something wrong, own it. As I said to the addicts in Slovenia, amends is a process. We say, "I'm sorry." "What can I do, if anything, to set right the wrong I did?" "It won't happen again." Then you have to live up to that and keep living it without expectation that your child's feelings will change. The timetable for that change is not in your hands. Those you have hurt will release their pain more slowly than you will want their forgiveness. Take responsibility for your actions; let your expectations go and do right anyway.
  2. Expect Nothing. No one has to forgive you. More to the point, your children may forgive you and still not want you in their lives. Act without presumption that the relationship will improve. As the parent, you need to take the high ground. At the same time, recognize that your life, sobriety or happiness do not depend on anyone else doing anything. Reach out because you genuinely want to, whatever the result.
  3. Speak Your Child's Love Language. Gary Chapman's book, "The Five Love Languages" explains a clear theory on how we express and receive love. If you want a relationship to work, you have to speak your child's love language. My love language is overwhelmingly "quality time," but my mother constantly gives me gifts, even when I expressly ask her not to. I understand what she's trying to do, but it infuriates me not to be listened to. Teach yourself to give love in the way your child receives it.
  4. Recognize that Your Child's Perspective is Valid. There are at least two ways of seeing any situation. Addicts tell me all the time, "Can't they see I'm trying?" Yes, your kids probably do see your efforts, but that doesn't make their pain or experience any less real. Acknowledge this and let your children speak freely about the ways in which they are hurt. You may not agree, but your child has a right to his/her feelings.
  5. If You Want the Relationship, Do the Work. What you have to realize as a parent is that your kids will be fine without you. Both young and adult children will find other people to fill your role. Your child may be willing to meet you part way, but the work is yours to do. If you want the relationship, you do the work. Eventually, your child may respond positively if you consistently act in healthy, appropriate ways.
  6. Don't Give Up. If the relationship means something to you, keep working on yourself and reaching out in healthy ways. Where there is breath, there is hope. If you are doing your work, there is always a chance for something better.