As long as our parents are alive, a part of us remains the child. So particularly when we’re talking about our parents, it’s helpful to understand that all of the relationship issues and challenges we had as children growing up together (which we may have thought were behind us!) can rise to the surface. We have history with our parents and with our siblings that continues to impact how we are seen, spoken to and dealt with as we mature (and how we see, speak to and deal with them!).
Sibling relationships, and the legendary rivalry that is typically present, is nearly always a hot topic of discussion with clients in therapy. Why is it such a universal phenomenon?
Well, it’s because we learn about ourselves from our siblings from a very early age – the good, the bad and the ugly. Often times people have more sibling issues than they do parent issues, and that actually makes sense. We learn about particular roles we play from family dynamics, and our siblings are our peers in that group, unlike our parents. We spend a lot of time with our siblings learning to negotiate competing priorities, process unexpected events, and navigate our way through countless upsets.
As we grow up many of these issues fade, change or get resolved, but who we are with our siblings typically remains static throughout our adult lives. We may become increasingly frustrated as the old tools and tricks we relied upon as children – when mom and dad ran interference as the ultimate arbitrators – don’t work as well when we’re older, independent and dealing with real-world grownup concerns.
What To Do When Sibling Strife Complicates Caring For Parents
As our responsibilities increase and the concerns become more serious, issues emerge that reawaken and magnify any unresolved sibling issues. And while therapy can certainly help a great deal in unraveling these struggles, and re-stitching the family fabric into a stronger and more harmonious pattern, sometimes family therapy is not an option.
When faced with the challenge of managing care for aging parents, it helps to calm the waters of sibling rivalry and disagreements if we can back up a few steps. Start by asking yourself (and your siblings too, if you can engage them in such a conversation):
- Is there agreement as to what care your parents need?
- Is there agreement as to who the spokesperson is for the family?
- Is there open communication between siblings?
- Is there open communication between the adult children and their parents?
In some families it can be challenging to dive right into these questions. If the answers to all these questions is “No!” – or if the very thought of addressing these topics with your siblings makes you cringe and want to change the subject – it’s important to deal with your own feelings first, so you can neutralize them as much as possible before initiating the group discussion.
My recommendation is that you start with a self-assessment, to tease out any hidden resentments, reactions and biases you may have “running the show” in the back of your mind when dealing with your siblings.
What is your history with your siblings?
- Do you have fond memories, fun memories, challenging memories?
- What thoughts and feelings come up as you face your parents’ mortality?
- Do you imagine your siblings’ thoughts and feelings are different from yours?
- Do you feel respect and/or compassion for the members of your family?
- Do they have respect and/or compassion for you?
- Do you go into sibling conversations with your guard up, or do you feel you can be authentic and honest with all concerned?
Once you become clearer about the sometimes tumultuous feelings and self-protective mechanisms that are always in the background, you have a chance to separate them from what needs to be done in the real world, here and now. You can choose to set aside the feelings in order to peaceably work through the facts and decision points you all need to address together on behalf of your parents.
Then and only then can you, individually and as a group, address what of course is always my favorite question:
What is my/our desired outcome?
Note: each person’s desired outcome may be different! If so, it’s critical to identify that right away and negotiate any disagreement out that FIRST. Remember that no one is “Right” or “Wrong” in these situations, even though it may feel that way.
Find the places where you can let go of your own rigid rules and standards a little, and be flexible for the sake of a workable agreement. Ask your siblings where they could potentially adjust their expectations and still feel okay with the outcome. Once you have all compromised as necessary to agree upon shared near-term care goals, you can truly begin working as a team on the longer-term decisions for the benefit of your parents.
Stay tuned for Part 2: “Why do they always do that?! And how can I get them to STOP?!”