Siblings are often the only people with whom you’ll have lifelong relationships. At many times, they are a powerful source of support. When it comes to working together to care for your aging parents, they can also be an enormous source of stress.
Why Sibling Tensions Can Erupt
There is potential for conflict at every stage of the process — conflict about what to do, how to do it, and how to pay for it. Research shows nearly 40 percent of adult children who have cared for a parent said they experienced major conflict with a sibling.
Unless you run a family business, it’s probably been a while since you’ve had to work closely with your siblings. When you have to come together with your parents to make decisions as a family unit about long-term care, it can often resurface long-buried family conflicts and pull people back into ill-fitting family roles.
Here are five reasons why:
1. There Is No Road Map
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to how to work together as sibling caregivers or a roadmap for who should do what.
“It’s often the first time siblings have had to work on anything like this together,” 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. “Navigating complex decisions with parents and adult siblings can be challenging — and feel like unfamiliar territory. There are often misunderstandings and miscommunications.”
2. Emotions Are High
“Parents have always taken care of their kids, and all of a sudden, the kids are responsible for caring for their parents,” says Joanne Housianitis, Director of Outreach for The Arbors at Dracut and The Arbors at Stoneham.
Watching a parent decline in mental or physical abilities is emotionally challenging enough. Add in the taking on tasks for which you have no training for and making decisions about finances and care, and it can be downright overwhelming.
3. You Share Genes, Not Personalities
Siblings share both genes and family environment, but research shows siblings are similar in personality only about 20 percent of the time. When a parent is no longer able to live independently and adult siblings have to transition into the role of decision-maker, it’s not uncommon for siblings to disagree on the best approach.
4. Old Patterns Resurface
“People can be competent in their professional lives and successful in their careers, but when they interact with their siblings, they may revert back to old patterns — and triggers and grudges can resurface,” Thorpe says. “They might interact in ways they did when they were growing up that don’t fully reflect who they are now.”
5. People Make Assumptions
Not only is it common for siblings to revert back to old patterns, but it’s equally as common for their brothers and sisters to assume they’re going to act that way, too.
“It’s human nature to make assumptions about people, to not recognize that people might have grown and changed, and to not give people the opportunity to be a different person,” Thorpe says. “Siblings often don’t recognize one another’s new skills.”
Avoid Sibling Conflict
This is a difficult time, so have compassion for yourself, and try to have compassion for your siblings. You don’t have to excuse negative behavior, but try to imagine the fear, pain, or need that is causing your siblings to react as they do. That kind of understanding can defuse a lot of sibling conflict.
Through patient communication and creative problem-solving, siblings can not only successfully navigate the decision-making process but even grow closer together. The key is for siblings to prepare emotionally and logistically and to know where they can turn for help.
“The earlier families can have the conversations about caregiving, the better,” Thorpe says.
For more information about navigating adult sibling relationships, download Brothers and Sisters, a guide to resolving sibling conflict when making assisted living decisions.