Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
In a perfect world, family members would always get along. Fortunately many do, although not perfectly. But for others, family relations are an ongoing challenge. Perhaps Charles Schulz was thinking along these lines when he penned the line: “Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life,” for one of his cartoon characters. He could have easily substituted the word “siblings” for “big sisters” and this would have aptly described how some siblings feel toward one another. Another writer put it this way: “If you don’t understand how a person could both love their sibling dearly and at the same time want to wring their neck, then you were probably an only child.” This see-saw between like and dislike found among many siblings often tips more heavily toward dislike when a crisis erupts.
Providing care for an aging or ill parent can bring out the best and the worst in sibling relationships. Ideally, the experience of caregiving is a time for siblings to come together and provide mutual support to one another. However, stressful situations can cause old rivalries to flare up or old wounds to be reopened. This can further escalate strained relations and result in painful conflict. Yet seen another way, caregiving can strengthen sibling bonds and provide an opportunity to nourish family relationships because there is a common purpose.
What often brings adult siblings together is the need to provide care for their ailing parents. But accomplishing that task can be complicated. Here are five common stumbling blocks that are can put distance between siblings.
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1. Unhealthy family patterns. One major source of sibling friction is the long-standing patterns of how the family relates to one another. Invariably, the demands of caregiving bring out old ways of relating and unresolved tensions. It is not unusual for adult children to find themselves replaying their historical roles in the family. For example, if your older brother was overly responsible and domineering in the family when growing up, it is likely he will assume a similar role in a caregiving situation. Or, if there was competition between siblings for a parent’s attention and affection, chances are good that this competitive game will reappear as siblings attempt to provide care for that parent.
How adult siblings handle these long-standing patterns depends on whether they are willing to acknowledge and discuss the issues as they arise. If one sibling, for example, can tell another when she is becoming overbearing or frustrated because she doesn’t speak up, they might be able to break some of those age-old patterns and better understand each other’s needs.
2. Dealing with favoritism. Parents can unintentionally fuel the tension between siblings by favoring one adult child over the other. Not surprisingly, some children got along better than other with their parents when growing up. So now, one or both parents favors that child’s care and company over the other adult children. This favoritism hurts those who feel left out and quickly turns into resentment toward favored child, which increases the tension between sibings. Not only does this favoritism make the sibling relationship more complicated but it also places a greater burden on the favored child to become the sole caregiver. It also gives the wrong impression that the other adult children’s contributions are not needed. So parents are just as prone as siblings to adhere to old relationship patterns and unconsciously reinforce them.
3. Denying the condition. Another conflict can arise when one sibling is in denial over a parent’s condition and the other isn’t. Adult children who seem unable to accept the reality of a parent’s illness and/or refuse to be involved in caregiving may be protecting themselves from facing a parent’s decline and their own loss. Siblings active in caregiving may react with bitterness and anger toward the one in denial.
Yet, it is normal for most adult children to experience at least some denial of a parent’s aging process until a critical event forces them to reconsider the parent’s health and functioning. With time, this denial is usually replaced with acceptance and prompts siblings to move closer to one another emotionally as they communicate more frequently about what is happening to their parent. If denial by a sibling continues even after it becomes evident that changes need to be made, it usually results in strained relationships and an unequal division of caregiving responsibilities among siblings.
4. Unequal division of caregiving responsibilities. Much discord surfaces among siblings from the unequal division of caregiving duties. A National Family Caregivers Association survey found that 76 % of family caregivers say they don’t receive help from other family members. Generally, one adult child takes on the primary role of caring for an ill or aging parent. This may be because he or she lives closest to a parent, is perceived as having less work or fewer family obligations, or is considered the “favorite” child. Regardless of the reasons, this situation can lead the overburdened caregiver to feel frustrated and resentful and other siblings to feel uninformed and left out.
5. Different perceptions. A particularly troublesome situation arises when siblings have vastly different perceptions of their parent’s needs. These differences of opinion commonly revolve around where the parent is going to reside. For example, one sibling believes that the parent should be placed in a nursing home while the other strongly believes their parent should be kept at home.
When opinions on care are this divided, each side may first try to persuade the other to see it their way. If these efforts fail, some siblings may try to recruit the support of health care professionals involved in the parent’s case, such as social workers, doctors, and counselors, to sway the other siblings to their side. While getting sound counsel from healthcare professionals to make educated decisions is advised, doing so behind a sibling’s back or to override an opposing viewpoint may increase the tension and conflict.
Though these stumbling blocks can cause a lot of tension between siblings attempting to provide care for their aging parents, these are ways around these obstacles. In part two of this article we’ll discuss ways to work toward solutions.
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