It is a normal part of family life that parents require more help from their children. As your parents grow older and experience health crises, it is common to look to your siblings for help. Most of us expect that having siblings to share the caregiver load will make things easier. It can come as a shock to find that you are not all on the same page.
An often-overlooked stress point in family caregiving is the friction between adult siblings. While mom or dad’s health care needs will cause stress, it is often the friction with our brother or sister that causes the most pain.
Conflict between siblings can get in the way of providing the best possible care for your mom or dad. It can even have a long-term impact on relationships within the extended family.
Caring for your mom or dad is an important stage in the life of a family. Roles shift and it is easy to feel unbalanced. The way in which you navigate this period with your siblings helps set the stage for how they will continue to interact — or even if you will!
There are three common scenarios that can cause disagreements between siblings.
The first is created when a sibling will not help. You may have a situation where a sibling is overwhelmed with what is happening in their own life. They do not have the mental or physical energy to help with mom or dad. This can leave you feeling alone or overly burdened.
Alternatively, this brother or sister may have a different viewpoint on how much help your mom or dad need. They may feel it is not necessary to give the level of care that you feel is appropriate.
It is important to allow your brother or sister space to own their own actions. Just accept that they cannot (or will not) help and move on. Sometimes, reducing the pressure they feel to help may allow them to find a way to come back to the situation later.
The second conflict scenario is created when a sibling prevents others from having their say. There may be one sibling who is used to taking charge or ‘running the show’. They may feel like they have a personal stake in making sure events unfold in a certain way.
This brother or sister may have a history of decision-making with respect to your mom or dad and feel like it is their area of expertise. They may feel like suggestions are personal criticisms of their past decision-making.
It is important in this scenario to use what I call the sandwich approach. Surround any suggestion with two compliments, one before and one after. You might want to say something like — You are doing such a good job with mom and I really appreciate that you are getting her groceries every week. Perhaps we could look at getting a foot care nurse to see to her feet. Like you I worry about her diabetes. If we had a foot care nurse, that would take a worry off your mind. I know how much mom relies on you and I know she appreciates everything you do for her.
The third common scenario is when one sibling criticizes the caregiving of another. This can be hurtful and hard to take, particularly when you are tired and stressed from caregiving.
One approach that can help defuse this situation is to attribute a positive intention to the criticisms. In your own mind say to yourself — ‘they must be really worried about Dad.’ See their responses as coming from a place of anxiety and worry. If you respond with understanding and affection, often the situation will calm down.
These scenarios may occur when siblings disagree about how much care is needed, how much independence is safe and what end-of-life care is needed, especially when a parent has not shared their wishes on the matter.
Navigating the Conflict
An overall approach that is helpful is to think about your brothers and sisters in terms of their temperament. While you all have the same genetic make-up, and grew up in the same environment, you will all have different temperaments.
Your temperament is your natural predisposition or ‘default setting’ to react in a certain way to events. These reactions are part of our inborn nature. This means that we may not even be aware that we are reacting in a set way. For example, a ‘phlegmatic’ personality will withdraw from stressful situations. So while you may think your brother doesn’t care because he leaves a stressful situation with your mom, it may be just responding to his natural reaction to withdraw. This doesn’t mean that you are doomed to react in this way all your life. But recognizing your default setting, and that of your siblings, can help you resolve conflict in a positive way.
Here are some tips for successfully navigating sibling conflict:
- Understand that the past matters. Much of the conflict siblings experience arises from ‘old business’ and long established sibling dynamics.
You probably got into habits of interaction with your brothers and sisters. These habits are default settings for later life and under stress are more likely to prevail. Take some time to think about your response before you react. This will give you time to overcome any ‘default setting’ and help you respond in a positive way.
- Learn all you can about aging, elder care, and dementia. It’s important you understand what’s normal and what’s not, what the family can expect and what resources are available.
When situations or events surprise us or catch us unaware, it is natural to revert to a comfortable way of reacting. This may not necessarily be the best way forward, and can damage relationships. That adage — forewarned is forearmed is helpful. The more you know about what you are going to face, the easier it is to deal with it in a calm and thoughtful manner.
- Bring in outside help. A geriatric care manager, elder care attorney or therapist can serve as mediator when siblings are contentious or come to an impasse.
A neutral set of eyes can be helpful in setting a framework for moving forward. An individual with experience in the field can defuse tension and help you move towards a solution that works for everyone.
- Look at this time in the family’s life as laying the groundwork for future relationships between siblings and grandchildren. This is your time to join together, move past old resentments and build new nurturing relationships.
While it may feel really difficult to deal with the issues that get raised during care, it is worthwhile to build your legacy of love.
If you need more help in this area, check out the Enable Family Caregiver Program.
- 1Read about the Four Stages of Caregiving
- 2Are You a Caregiver or Know One? Get the Enable Caregiver Course
- 3Register to get free health eBooks and content. (click here)
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.