Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Family Dynamics

How to Reconcile With an Estranged Family Member

Start softly, check your ego, and focus on the present.

Key points

  • The possibility of reconciliation improves with age, but old patterns can reemerge; few admit they were wrong.
  • Before reconciling, examine your motivation and prospects for resuming and improving the relationship.
  • Anger, which masks hurt, sadness, guilt, and shame, is typically a driving force in an estranged relationship.
Anna Schevchuk/Pexels
Source: Anna Schevchuk/Pexels

No matter how much time has lapsed, or how distant relatives have become, family reintroduces each of us to our former selves. Intricately and inextricably, family members, especially siblings — no matter whether or not they even speak — are woven into the fabric of each other’s lives.

The possibility of reconciliation seems to improve with age for siblings. People begin to think more about the past than the future as grown children leave home, careers wind down, and friends move away, become ill, or die. Some brothers and sisters long to reconnect with someone who knew them before they assumed adult roles, before they married, started a family, or entered the workplace. Often a sibling yearns to talk to the only other person on the planet who understands the codes and nuances of their family of origin.

The bad news, however, is that no matter how hard estranged siblings try to reconcile, roughly 40 percent simply can’t make it work. Most fail because the same patterns that originally caused the estrangement tend to reemerge during reconciliation. Change is difficult; few want to admit they were wrong, apologize, and take responsibility for the hurts and lost years.

How do you really feel about reconciling?

To approach reconciliation in a rational, self‐protective yet open fashion, it’s crucial to assess one’s own feelings and examine the prospects for resuming and improving the relationship. Consider the following questions when assessing your feelings:

  • Why is this relationship important to me — not to my family or to anyone else, but to me?
  • On what basis would we enter, rebuild, and maintain the relationship? As siblings, as friends, as distant relatives?
  • Do my sibling and I have enough in common — including a desire to make this effort worthwhile?
  • Can I set aside the anger, pain, and/or resentment that led to the break in order to change our pattern of relating?
  • Is it possible to develop a different, better relationship?
  • Do I want to resume this relationship if I discover that neither of us has changed?
  • Do I have the resources — time, energy, emotional resilience, support of other loved ones — to reconcile and rebuild this relationship?
  • Will I compromise too much of myself if I try to sustain a relationship with my difficult sibling?

How and where to meet

In her book, Sibling Therapy, Dr. Karen Gail Lewis offers the following suggestions for siblings who meet after a period of estrangement:

  • Meet in a local, quiet, neutral place to discuss how to improve the relationship. Set aside specific times for talking, and then have some fun together.
  • Decide in advance what topics to discuss, starting with those that aren’t too highly charged.
  • Set a time frame, around one to three hours, for the discussion. Don’t try to cover too much in one meeting.
  • Do not have friends or other relatives present.
  • After each sibling says something, the other repeats back what was said to make sure siblings hear and understand each other.
  • Use humor. Before the discussion, agree on a silly code word to say when one sibling breaks any of the guidelines.

How to approach the discussion

Consider this list of pointers based on the suggestions of several experts:

  • Put the past in the past; focus on the present and the future.
  • Start softly.
  • Be honest, but not hurtful.
  • Address differences honestly. Research shows that siblings are most competitive about achievement, looks, and intellect. Use non-confrontational “I” messages — “I feel so much less accomplished than you” — rather than provocative “you” statements — “you always bullied me” — which can make a sibling feel defensive.
  • Accept your brother or sister as he or she is now. Put away childhood hurts, perceptions, and labels. There are reasons a brother or sister treated a sibling a certain way. Consider that it may be because of how you were parented, rather than anything he or she intentionally did.
  • Withhold judgment in explaining your feelings. To establish a new kind of relationship, give your sibling the benefit of the doubt.
  • Check your ego. Stop trying to prove — stop needing to prove — that you’re always right.
  • Stay in the present, instead of dredging up your anger from past experiences.
  • Be a touchstone. Gentle “remember when” prompts remind siblings of their unique relationship and what they shared long ago.
  • Cultivate a friendship. Try to connect with a sibling as if he or she is a friend. Seek common ground, even if there isn’t much.
  • Know your sibling’s triggers — and avoid them.
  • Manage expectations. A few conversations won’t extinguish a lifetime of resentments.
  • Honor small victories and slow progress.
  • Listen to their stories.

How to lose the anger

No matter what other emotions are in the mix, anger is typically a driving force in an estranged relationship. Anger masks many emotions: hurt, stress, self‐consciousness, sadness, guilt, shame. Regardless of what’s behind it, anger leads to hostility, and hostility erodes relationships.

Reducing anger before attempting reconciliation requires a conscious effort. The following questions may guide that effort:

  • Can I keep anger out of my attempts to reconcile?
  • What benefit do I get from holding on to this anger? What is the cost?
  • If I constantly feel angry, can I examine what is fueling those feelings? Can I see how this prevents me from successfully reconciling?
  • Can I admit to my feelings and even try again?
  • Does anger empower me in a powerless situation? If so, can I find another source of strength?
  • Can I set a boundary without becoming enraged or defensive?
  • How would I feel if someone discharged onto me the anger I’m experiencing?
  • How will I feel about myself if I look back on this situation and recognize that I allowed anger to dominate my reaction?

We can’t control our sibling’s behavior, but we can control how we see ourselves in relation to them and how we approach them. Achieving reconciliation and changing the relationship into one that’s functional will — first and foremost — require us to change.

Facebook image: Tommy Lee Walker/Shutterstock


Lewis, Dr. Karen Gail. (2023) Sibling Therapy: The Ghosts from Childhood that Haunt Your Clients' Love and Work. Oxford University Press

More from Fern Schumer Chapman
More from Psychology Today