Families with several involved siblings often have problems with disagreements and power struggles. Getting brothers and sisters all on the same page can take patience, coordination, and several in-depth conversations. Here are eight ways to improve sibling relationships.
1. Call a Family Meeting
If your parents are healthy and you have a close relationship with your siblings, now is the time to carefully consider caregiving roles and responsibilities and to allow everyone time to get on the same page. Family meetings offer opportunities for:
- The parents to share their wants and needs
- The hands-on siblings to clarify the parents’ needs and explain all they do
- The other siblings a chance to learn about the situation, participate in care decisions, and brainstorm how they can pitch in
“At one meeting, it might be looking at how to support Mom or Dad’s independence when they are no longer able to drive or how to help support their continued social life,” says Crystal Thorpe, a Professional Family Mediator and Co-Founder of Elder Decisions, in Norwood, Massachusetts, and a Co-Author of Mom Always Liked You Best: A Guide for Resolving Family Feuds, Inheritance Battles & Eldercare Crises.
“Later on, it may be how to help them be physically comfortable. The decisions are different. What’s common is that you’re taking the time to slow down and to hear from each person — your parent, your siblings, and any others involved — what’s important to them before you make decisions together and put an action plan in place.”
2. Talk About Interests Before Solutions
Rather than jumping to what you think should happen, talk about what’s important to you about any decision that’s made.
“In mediation, we call that your interests,” Thorpe says. “When you hear what’s important to everybody, you can all brainstorm options that meet everyone’s needs. Often this results in solutions that work for everyone and that you might not have thought of on your own.”
3. Listen with Genuine Curiosity
Having a successful conversation with your family means that everyone has a chance to say what they feel without being judged. If your siblings are able to share what they truly think, it will help you resolve conflicts and find better solutions.
Instead of formulating your next statement while your sibling is talking, really listen. “Then, before you give your own opinion, try summarizing what you heard them say,” Thorpe says. “We don’t often hear reflected back what we’ve said. This not only lets them know you were listening and you understand them, but it also gives them a chance to clarify.
“Once they feel really heard,” she continues, “they’re going to be better able to listen to you and hear you. That can go a long way to helping people communicate more effectively.”
4. Don’t Play the Blame Game
Not only should you avoid placing blame or making generalizations such as “You always” or “You never,” but you should also take responsibility for your own actions.
“Take a step back and look at your own role in the situation,” Thorpe suggests. “Have a conversation about that, too. ‘Gee, I’m noticing that I may be falling into some old traps. Here’s what I’m noticing.’”
5. Ask for What You Need
Your siblings may assume that you have everything covered, so they don’t recognize the added responsibilities and “burden.” It’s important to be specific about what you need.
For example, your out-of-town brother offers to come in for a week to provide respite care, but what you really need is two hours off a week.
“It’s hard to be a long-distance caregiver,” says Barry J. Jacobs, a Clinical Psychologist, Health Care Consultant, and Author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. “Not all help is helpful. Long-distance caregivers need to figure out how to be really helpful.”
Thorpe adds: “Siblings need to check their assumptions. Someone might assume they’re being supportive. If they don’t check that out, they could be making a mistake. The caregiver might be really grateful or actually need something else.”
6. Divvy Up Tasks Fairly, Not Equally
Sibling expectations for sharing care responsibilities do not necessarily translate into equality in types or amounts of care provided. Contributions to parent care are often diverse and uneven.
“Try to match responsibilities with people’s skills sets and abilities,” Thorpe says. “One sibling might have more resources in terms of time, skill, and interest when it comes to providing physical care. Another might not have that interest but be really successful at work and have more financial resources available. Siblings can contribute in different ways.”
Adds Jacobs: “That may be fair even though it’s unequal.”
7. Create an Action Plan
When responsibilities and tasks are assigned, make sure each person is clear on what they have agreed to do.
“It’s essential,” Jacobs says, “so there is no misunderstanding later about what was said or agreed to. You want everyone working from the same game plan.”
8. Cut Everyone Some Slack
Including yourself. Families are complicated and never perfect. There are no “shoulds” about how people feel. Try to accept your siblings — and your parents — as they really are, not who you wish they were.
“Give people the benefit of the doubt before judging too harshly,” Thorpe says. “People are stressed. They may say things that come out wrong. Step back and take a deep breath.”
When you focus on building better sibling relationships, caregiving can make families stronger than ever.
For more tips about navigating adult sibling relationships, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.