The Secret to Connecting With a Distant or Difficult Dad

Know the key to connecting with a distant or difficult dad.

Posted Jan 20, 2019

When an acquaintance of mine announced she was going to approach her father during the holiday vacation to try to “get close” to him by “breaking through his brick wall,” I suspected she was doomed to failure. While I didn’t know exactly what “breaking through his brick wall” might entail, I was not surprised when she returned home feeling grumpy and defeated.

The outcome might have been different if she had been less ambitious—if she had planned one specific move toward her goal. For example, she might have requested some one-to-one time with her dad, perhaps for coffee or a short walk.

Because she and her father never had “alone time” in the midst of family visits, this in itself would have been a significant change, even if they had talked about nothing more than the weather. Had he resisted her efforts, she would then know she needed to begin with a smaller move still.  In any case, breaking down someone’s brick wall is hardly an example of moving slow and thinking small.

Substantive change in important relationships rarely comes about through intense confrontation. Rather, it more frequently results from careful thinking and from planning for small, manageable moves based on a solid understanding of the problem, including our own part in it. We are unlikely to be agents of change when we hold our nose, close our eyes, and jump.  

While my own associations to the word “conservative” are not great ones, this word best describes my attitude toward personal change. A conservative approach to personal change means that we proceed slowly—and with the understanding that our moves forward will probably be accompanied by inevitable frustrations and derailments.

Thinking small provides us with the opportunity to observe and check out the impact of each new behavior on a relationship system. We can observe whether we can maintain the change over time. Starting small also militates against our natural tendency to move in with a big bang and then drop out entirely when initial responses are not to our liking.

When we try to change too much, we may stir up so much anxiety that nothing changes at all. Remember, it's the direction of change we move in, and not the speed of travel that matters. Start small and observe the outcome of your own experiment.