Flashback to Childhood
Family Stress Can Rekindle Good Old Sibling Rivalry
The phone rang at 8:30 on a Monday morning with the words on the other end coming in a rush: "I know that my brother Ted called you Friday saying Dad is doing just fine at home, but he's not. He's confused and not eating well. Don't listen to Ted."
I encountered sibling rivalry many times as a social worker, and that call was a classic example. The crisis of caring for an aging parent reunites families in close contact where we adopt the same roles we had as children: the good kid or the spacey one, the reconciler or the black sheep.
When we experience the emotional highs and lows of caregiving, we sometimes regress to earlier, less sophisticated ways of coping. The over-functioning sister sees her brother as the big mess-up who cannot be trusted to take care of Mom and Dad. A brother arranges for an in-home aide for Dad, and another fires her because he believes he can find a better one.
Sometimes siblings worry more about who is right than what is best for their parents. They spend a lot of time questioning, undoing each other's work and using needed energy. In the end, the parents' care suffers because their adult children were not using their full capabilities. Their childhood roles limited any hope of finding the creative solutions caregiving requires.
It's understandable, however. The antagonism, tension and even hostility that exist among brothers and sisters derive from their fight for what they perceive to be a precious, limited resource: their parents' love, attention and approval. In many cases, the rivalry began when we were infants and toddlers experiencing the arrival of our new brother and sister. We were pre-verbal, either unaware of the experience (pre-conscious) or so immersed in it that it seemed natural. The experience resides in our pre-conscious and emerges in our interactions with others.
Our sibling conflicts about caregiving today come from the deepest part of our souls and encompass our greatest fears. Who do Mom and Dad love more? The feeling that "Mom loved him or her best" haunts many of us. You may struggle all your life to dethrone your sibling of the "best loved" status, or you may have given up on ever being loved. Or maybe you merely think you have.
Caregiving may set the stage for another showdown between you and your siblings, but it doesn't have to. Look at this time as an unparalleled gift - the opportunity to develop a stronger, more adult relationship with your siblings. Here's how:
Make a deliberate effort to break free of old roles. If you are "the responsible one" and your sister "the irresponsible one," discuss this openly. Agree to let her take on more responsibility and allow yourself to take on less. Only when we acknowledge the existence of these roles and their obsolescence can we transcend them and find new ways to relate.
Try to let caregiving bring you closer instead of creating more stress in an already stressful situation. Give yourself and others a break. Understand that everyone is feeling the anguish of the situation, its inherent sadness and myriad other emotions. We are not always at our best in difficult times. When we're under a great deal of stress, we tend toward knee-jerk reactions that don't always reflect how we truly feel or how we want to make others feel.
Be ready to say "I'm sorry" and equally ready to say "I forgive you" when appropriate.
Keep the lines of communication open, frequent and healthy. Use "I" statements rather than "you," which can sound as though you're on the attack.
Take a break and cool down when emotions become heated. Think before you act or speak.
Seek professional counseling if rivalry or other issues interfere with your work and potential growth as caregivers.
Remember, when we re-enact old family roles, we relive all the resentment and pain accompanying them. As adults, it is our responsibility to break free of roles that no longer work for us. Our goal may be to function effectively if not affectionately - but function as a family we must. We cannot do it alone. One of the many gifts of caregiving is the opportunity to revisit our relationship with our siblings and form deeper bonds as adults - bonds that will one day help us remain a family even when our parents are no longer with us.