Lots of Boomer-aged siblings find themselves fighting about their aging parents.
Should Mom be allowed to stay in her home even though she’s really not safe living alone? How about the driving issue? Does one parent have Alzheimer’s or some other dementia and some siblings are in denial about it? Who pays for a parent’s care? These are common areas of disagreement in families that can tear apart relationships if you are not mindful of how you fight.
You can’t stop your brothers or sisters from having a different way of seeing your parent’s situation, but you can change the way you approach the conversation with them.
Getting along, and agreeing to disagree are manageable if you know how.
In some ways it’s like the fair fighting rules for married people or couples. There are things you can do and things you should never do. The most destructive things we do when we are in a conflict with siblings can’t be undone. Emotionally loaded subjects can bring out the worst in families. If you are aware of fighting fair, you have a better chance of still being on speaking terms with siblings after your parents pass on.
Some of the worst mistakes are the same for any fight: they are verbally violent and cause harm that may last long after the fight ends. The basics of fair fighting are the equivalent of not “hitting below the belt”. They include setting up a few ground rules. We use them at AgingParents.com when we have to work with sibling warfare in a family meeting by phone or in person, sitting at a table.
The subject of parents in declining health brings up a lot of feelings, good or not, about the parent and each person’s relationship with the parent. It also brings up a lot about the siblings relationships with each other, sometimes things never discussed before. Things can get explosive.
Here are ground rules we always ask people to follow to keep it civil, though some can’t seem to restrain themselves from doing otherwise. These rules do help everyone actually communicate while struggling with a load of emotions rising to the surface about Mom or Dad.
1. No name calling, no swearing and cursing, and no shouting at each other. These are all forms of verbal violence and they can cause hurt you may not mean to cause. Restrain yourself and see if everyone can agree to do the same.
2. Define among you what you’re going to talk about ahead of the conversation and stick to it. It will reduce the magnitude of the disagreement and keep the door closed, for now, on other volatile subjects. Make a list or agenda if you need to. It can help.
3. Agree to avoid bringing up the past, especially about decades old hurts. If you focus on what Mom or Dad needs, things will go a lot better. Stick to the problem with your parent that caused this conversation in the first place.
4. Don’t start sentences with “You”. Statements like “You can’t be bothered!” or “You don’t care about anyone else” don’t get anyone anywhere in a fight. They tend to make the other sibling defensive and it gets worse from there.
5. No interrupting. You need to listen to the sibling who is talking. It helps to have a leader in the conversation to keep this rule in force. If there isn’t one, you can remind others that we agreed to not interrupt each other.
6. Don’t clam up, no matter how angry you get in a fight with a sibling,. Be honest about your feelings and keep your message about what you want to do clear. Take a breath or take a break, but come back and be straight about what is bothering you.
7. Ask your sibling what he or she needs. It sounds simple, but this rarely happens. You can find out a lot about how to resolve your disagreements if you ask more questions of those who are involved in the fight with you. If a sibling is angry with you because there is something he or she is not getting, perhaps they’ll admit it and you can do something about it.
8. Avoid absolute statements like “you never contribute a dime” or “I always know you’ll disappear when there’s work to do”. If you try another tack such as “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the work of taking care of Dad and I would like you to come next month and give me a break” is going to work a lot better than the “always’, “never” extreme statements.
No matter how your relationships have been with siblings in the past, we can all do better when an aging parent conflict comes up. The rules of fair fighting work. Try discussing them, passing them around or testing the waters with siblings by bringing up the idea before any meeting at which you anticipate an argument. It might be a big relief to you when things go better than ever.
Until next time,