Issues between brothers and sisters often seem to come to a head when a parent begins requiring care. While siblings who have always had a healthy relationship generally find ways to work through their disagreements, many who never truly got along can find themselves frustrated, hurt and even completely estranged from one another in the end. In either scenario, objective, professional advice can be helpful for those families who are experiencing conflict at a time when everyone should be cooperating.
“Caring for a parent in itself can be physically and emotionally demanding, and adding numerous opinions and personalities to the mix can multiply the complexities involved,” explains Christine M. Valentin, LCSW, a therapist based in Middlesex, N.J., with extensive experience working with individuals who are feeling anxious and depressed due to work, relationships, and caregiving. Valentin sheds some light on a few of the most common reasons why siblings clash while seeing to a parent’s care and how families can overcome their communication and problem-solving difficulties.
The Prevalence of Dysfunction in Caregiving Families
Caring for a loved one is a complex task that involves making countless decisions while also juggling financial constraints, paperwork and planning, and emotional responses. There is a great deal at stake, and matters are complicated further when each person involved seems to have an interest, an opinion or an attitude regarding how these tasks should be handled.
“While I’m not aware of statistics that actually confirm it is widespread, I would say that some form of ‘family dysfunction’ during the caregiving journey is almost inevitable,” Valentin asserts. “This is particularly true if everyone is not on the same page regarding the care they think their parent(s) should receive.”
Caregiving Can Aggravate Unhealthy Sibling Relationships
Everyone handles the responsibility of another person’s care differently. Some families rally around their loved ones to ensure their well-being, while others disintegrate. Looking to the past can typically provide clues as to why siblings are struggling to work together.
“In my experience, a family rift, dislike for one another’s personality, or disapproval of each other’s lifestyle choices is generally present before the caregiving duties arise,” recalls Valentin. “The stress of the experience tends to highlight or remind family members of past conflicts and rivalries, which, in many cases, can no longer be skimmed over or avoided.”
For example, a family may have always known that “Tom is Dad’s favorite child.” While this preferential treatment may have been accepted and politely ignored for decades, it can still cause problems between the siblings now. Things can get especially tense if a parent showers the “golden child” with praise (regardless of their contributions) while ignoring how other siblings are helping out. Caregiving can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in this regard.
Inequality in Family Caregiving
The hypothetical scenario above is an extremely common situation that arises when one sibling carries more responsibilities than the other(s).
“There is typically a logical or logistical reason for some of this unequal distribution of responsibilities, such as the primary caregiver’s physical proximity to the parent or the flexibility of their schedule (whether real or perceived),” explains Valentin.
Sociocultural norms and expectations within the family often play a significant role as well.
The reality is, whenever there is more than one person involved in caring for a parent, there are likely to be differing opinions on what needs to be managed, who should be handling what tasks and when, and how to intervene.
“If a sibling is not helping to provide hands-on care, financial assistance, emotional support or some other contribution, the primary caregiver often ends up feeling resentful, burned out and lonely,” Valentin points out.
Over the years, many of her caregiver clients have sought help with the following complications in sibling dynamics:
- Caregivers upset with siblings because they are not helping out enough
- Primary caregivers not advocating for themselves or taking a stand with older siblings because it goes against the established family dynamic
- Allowing social and cultural beliefs to dictate what roles each sibling will play in caregiving (E.g., the oldest male child not needing to help out as much, while the youngest female child assumes most of the hands-on work)
- Difficult feelings surrounding childhood experiences, parenting style and/or past conflicts with siblings that are exacerbated by stressful caregiving situations
Elder Care Provokes Powerful Emotions
Regardless of whether a parent simply needs help with meals and housework or they require 24/7 assistance due to advanced dementia, this “role reversal” forces family members to come to terms with their aging loved one’s mortality. Denial can cause emotional stress to spill over into how family members work and communicate with one another.
“This can be particularly painful for some to accept, and it is not unusual for individuals to react by lashing out and blocking or refusing to accept appropriate treatments or increasing levels of care,” Valentin notes.
Stress from other areas of life, such as work, children, marriage, and finances can add to the frustration and dysfunction. It is crucial for family members to reign in these overwhelming emotions and try their best to communicate effectively, make realistic care decisions and achieve balance.
How to Improve Communication With Siblings
There are many ways to enhance communication with siblings, but Valentin stipulates that effectiveness depends upon everyone’s willingness and openness to address the issues at hand.
Valentin offers the following suggestions for healthy communication:
- Be open to hearing one another’s feelings about the caregiving situation.
- Be honest with yourself and each other when discussing concerns regarding your parent(s) and their mortality.
- Avoid minimizing or discounting other people’s feelings.
- Respect each other’s personal opinions and points of view, and be mindful of any biases or ill feelings that may be influencing your judgment and attitude.
- Be realistic about who your family members are and what they are capable of when it comes to participating in providing care.
- Recognize your limitations. Sometimes knowing when to stop trying to make someone understand is just as important as educating your sibling(s) and advocating for them to be involved.
- Set goals for productive solutions like compromise and/or forgiveness, instead of focusing on “being right.”
- Have an experienced, non-partial person help facilitate these discussions. Better communication and understanding can often result from having a neutral third party mediate and offer an outsider’s perspective. This person can be an impartial friend, a clergy member, a social worker, a geriatric care manager or a mental health professional.
Professional Help for Caregiving Families
Valentin suggests hosting a family meeting as a good first step towards cooperation. Do not include the care recipient at the first meeting, but do include a trained, experienced mental health professional. Doing so can help the family gain a better understanding of everyone’s feelings about the situation as well as their expectations.
“It is during such consultations that families are able to hear each other out rather than letting their emotions get the best of them and closing themselves off from productive conversation,” she says.
Families can experience a sense of relief when their emotions are validated and normalized. Depending on the kind of professional they choose to work with, they may learn strategies for improving communication and obtain access to helpful tools and resources.
If a family therapy approach is not possible or successful, one-on-one counseling may help a caregiver learn how to deal with difficult siblings and other relatives in a healthy and productive manner. Support groups are another excellent resource where individuals can share experiences and advice with others who have been in similar caregiving situations.
When to Set Boundaries With Toxic Siblings
Sadly, in some families there are relationships that cannot be repaired, regardless of how hard siblings try. In these instances, distance is usually the only effective option. Valentin says that the point when this occurs is different for everyone since factors like history of conflict, history of attempts at reconciling, and expectations of one another need to be taken into consideration.
“Generally speaking, siblings should detach when they feel they have made every possible effort to settle their differences and believe that the stress of getting a sibling on board outweighs any benefits they might bring to the table,” suggests Valentin.
This is a common solution for people with a needy or narcissistic sibling who uses bullying, guilt and manipulation to get their way. While this can be hard to do for various reasons, it is often the best option in order to eliminate unnecessary sources of stress while caregiving.
Many people associate detachment with abandonment or feel it is a choice that indicates a lack of compassion or dedication to their loved ones. However, Valentin reminds family caregivers that detaching from a family member does not mean you no longer love them or do not care about their well-being. Instead, you choose to create a healthy distance between the two of you, which will provide you with a buffer against their negativity, drama and other destructive tendencies.
“Your sibling is responsible for their own behavior, and you are responsible for deciding how you will let their words and actions affect you,” states Valentin. “Firmly setting boundaries with your sibling is a way of taking back control over your life.”
This could consist of a reduction in communication or an all-out no contact approach. Yes, sibling estrangement is sad. But, accepting that there are certain things you are incapable of changing and limiting your interactions with unhealthy, unyielding individuals will allow you to focus on your own well-being and providing top-notch care for your parent(s).