Sibling rivalry, aging parents and running the emotional gauntlet

Dylan Thomas quote.jpgSibling rivalry, also known as competition between sisters and brothers for a parent’s attention, may change over time. Unique relationships can strengthen or weaken on the road from childhood to adulthood. Physical and emotional distances offer adult siblings new opportunities to develop respectful, loving, caring relationships. Sometimes though, a few embers of competitiveness or jealousy burn low.

Birth order can create lifelong labels that defy age, education, and experience. With that status often come a pre-defined set of roles. As Jane Mersky Leder wrote: “our siblings push buttons that cast us in roles we felt sure we had let go of long ago — the baby, the peacekeeper, the caretaker, the avoider. It doesn’t seem to matter how much time has elapsed or how far we’ve traveled.”

Often when adult siblings receive a crisis alert that elderly Mom or Dad is sick, it is common for old roles and competitiveness to flare. How quickly an adult child can revert into acting like a kid when siblings get together. There is just something about being with brothers and sisters that can send you into time travel, from age 45 to age 5 in a snap, and subsequently, from mature to immature.

Family dynamics are a powerful force, and when combined with the stress and fear of losing a parent, can launch (or re-start) sibling feuds and hurt. How adult children navigate the stormy times with an older or younger sibling depends on many factors including his or her own support system, self-awareness, dedication to a greater good and emotional maturity – easy to say, hard to implement and perhaps challenging to stay the course.

Aging parents play a leading role in sibling dynamics. However, it is neither wise nor fair to count on Mom or Dad to mediate their grown up children’s feuds. Adult children need to acknowledge that they may not have had the perfect childhood or the perfect parents. Be aware of the possibility of pitting one child against another, manipulation, and the age old comparison game.

How can siblings work together during their parent’s aging journey?

  1. Hope for the best and expect less – less in terms of personal recognition, equity, fame, glory, money, family heirlooms, etc. Aim for selflessness; it is a good look on everyone.
  2. Respect legal and fiduciary assignments that parents have executed via power of attorney documents, wills, trusts, HIPAA release authorizations, etc. whether you personally agree or not. Decision-making authority and money are two topics that can stir conflict in the best of families. If your parent has not made his wishes clear by executing written advance directives, consult an attorney so your parent can put these essential documents in place.
  3. Jobs for everyone! Help your siblings and yourself by looking at the tasks that must be accomplished. Match those tasks with individual strengths. Instead of forcing your brother to stay at the hospital with Mom when everyone knows that he is squeamish, ask him to mow the grass or hire a housekeeper. If you and your siblings cannot reach consensus quickly, phone a friend or a pastor or a family elder or a professional care manager – someone that can help you make assignments without starting a family squabble.
  4. Practice self-care. It is hard to drink from an empty glass. Stress, anxiety, fear are ingredients for a perfect sibling storm. If you are a long distance adult child or if parental love is not the common denominator in your family, send a proxy. Professional care managers are trained to facilitate during a crisis. Care managers often serve as a “surrogate” sibling and can become the glue that holds the family together through the crisis.
  5. Now is not the time. An aging parent emergency is not necessarily the time to give in to family dysfunction. Even if a parent or sibling is on your last nerve, walk (or run) away from that scene. The common ground may be love for your parent. Meet there. Even if it’s true that your brother always received more attention, gifts, love, etc., it is bad form to expect your parent to balance the scales during a health crisis.

“The principle needs to be this: Whatever the reasons for your feelings you will have to find civilized solutions.” – Selma Fraiburg


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