On Psychology

Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 1999 / 26 Tishrei, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Broken Relationships Can Be Fixed, Slowly

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: Several years ago, I made some bad decisions and wound up in prison. I am four years into a 10 year sentence, and could be released to a drug program soon. Since coming to prison, I have been working hard to get my life in order.

I am also the father of three beautiful children. Before I went to prison, I made many promises to them which I did not fulfill. I hate the fact that I have betrayed my kids in the past. Is it possible for a father in prison to make amends and begin to establish a better relationship with his children?

A: The good news is that it is possible for a man in prison to obtain forgiveness from his children and become a better father. But the journey is not an easy one. Here are some suggestions for those fathers in prison seeking reconciliation with their children.

The first step is understanding why you were a disengaged father in the first place. Many fathers seeking reconciliation make the mistake of assuming that the first step is to ask for forgiveness. But unless you understand what led you to be an uninvolved father in the first place, it is likely you eventually will repeat the same mistakes you made in the past.


For most men, the key to understanding why they were uninvolved or irresponsible fathers is examining their relationship with their own father. When a man grows up with a disengaged, uninvolved or abusive father, leftover hurt, anger and resentment can make it difficult to be an involved, competent father himself. So, the first question to ask yourself is: What was my relationship like with my own father, and how would I have wanted it to be different?

This self-examination process will not be easy. But becoming aware of your feelings toward your own father, can be helpful in understanding why you were an uninvolved father yourself. This self-understanding can then help you avoid make the same mistakes twice.

The second step is to recognize that the reconciliation process will not be a quick one. Men like results -- and the quicker the better. This leads many men to move too soon, too fast.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that loved ones have tried unsuccessfully in the past to get the father to change his behavior. Consequently, a father's announcement that he is now seeking forgiveness and wants to change is frequently received with some suspicion. They may, in fact, have heard it all before.

Recognize that your children will need time to work out their anger, frustration and resentment over your past behavior. If you pressure your children to forgive you, they will either refuse or become resentful about having been pressured into expressing forgiveness. Forgiveness must be freely given. It can also take a while. Keep in mind that forgiveness comes at the end of the process and not the beginning.

So don't become disappointed or resentful if forgiveness is not given right away. Coming to the decision to ask for forgiveness was neither easy nor quick for you. You shouldn't expect that your children's decision to grant forgiveness will be easy or quick either.

One way to begin the process is to write a letter to each of your children (and their mother), acknowledging your past behavior and requesting forgiveness. This gives you time to clarify your thoughts and allows each family member time to react to your letter without feeling pressured. In the letter, it is important to accept personal responsibility for your past failures. Above all, don't blame the children or their mother for your past difficulties.

As you proceed with the process of reconciliation, it will be helpful to place yourself regularly in your children's shoes. You have been away for a number of years, and now you want to come back into their lives. Your children will naturally have a number of questions, like: What will happen now? Will he leave us again? What will life be like between mom and dad? How will things change for me? What will it be like to be together again after all these years?

These questions are not easy ones. Your children will need time to sort through all of this.

Once you have re-established contact with your children, the third step is to get to know them again. You've been away for four years. That's a long time in a child's life. A lot has undoubtedly happened during that time. You have a lot of catching up to do.

Whether it's through letters, audiotaped messages, regularly scheduled phone calls, or seeing them on visitors day, find out about them. What are their hobbies, interests and favorite foods? What kind of music do they like? Who are their friends, pets, teachers, and heroes? By asking about them, you are communicating in a most powerful way that your motivation to become re-involved is not selfish, but loving.

The fourth step is to set up a plan for reconnecting with your children once you are released from prison. Keep the plan simple and achievable. Decide, for example, what you will do for, with, and around your children. Decide what you will never do for, with, or around your children.

Also plan for how you will get a job, pay child support, and see your children regularly. Try to line up the resources you will need to achieve your plan in advance of your release. Then pursue your plan diligently.

Once released, make the re-connection gradual, with the support of the mother, if at all possible. Some dads want to reconcile everything all-at-once. That doesn't happen. Be patient.

Fatherhood is the most important job any man will ever take on. Even if you have come up short in the past, you can, through seeking self-awareness, forgiveness, and behavior change, become a more effective father in the future.

The good news is it is never too late to begin -- even if you are now in prison. The difficult news is it is hard work. Consistent, dependable behavior on your part helps them see you are changing for the better. Don't just promise it. Do it.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn