What to Do When Outdated Childhood Roles Cause Static in Caring for Elderly Parents

I’m going to make a bold statement and say that the quality of your relationships with your siblings is one of the biggest determinants of the quality of your life as an adult. Does that surprise you?

Many people create adult lives that are so separate from those of their siblings – geographically far away, and/or in completely different social circles – that they think they are totally unaffected by those unhealed childhood wounds. But those unresolved sibling challenges are still there beneath the surface, creating at the very least a kind of missing piece in our sphere of love and relationships.

As the previous two articles outlined, you can use some simple Q&A with yourself to start untangling the knots in these decades-old patterns, and better understand your siblings’ behavior. When you do, you can begin to catch yourself when you interact with them, before  reacting in the old ways. You will gain the ability do something else as an adult, that is more likely to get the result you really want.

To illustrate how these patterns can come back to haunt you with a vengeance, and how you can avoid the old traps, I want to focus again on how they show up in the context of sharing responsibility with fellow siblings for aging parents. If you haven’t already realized it, you need to know that if you have successfully distanced yourself from your siblings as an adult, and your parents are still alive, it’s highly likely that when the time comes to care for your parents and make decisions on their behalf you’re going to face a whole new round of sibling strife.

So whether the result you’re wishing for is you being less upset when your brother or sister “does that thing they do” again – like trying to bully you into being the one who has to handle things – or a greater ability to persuade them to contribute more, or a less uncomfortable conversation about money or health care, isn’t it worth investing some time in improved self-awareness and strategic self-management?


Prepare yourself now to make things go more smoothly

If you are one of your parent’s caregivers, and you find that you are constantly battling with your siblings over major decisions and/or daily tasks relating to your parent’s care, it helps immensely to pause for a moment to examine and define the dynamics that were at play “back then.” Ask yourself (and your siblings if you can!):

  • How much of your ______ (fill in with what’s true for you: resistance, resentment, giving in, guilt, etc.) is because of your traditional role in the family?
  • How concerned are you that if you don’t get your way, you’ll just be falling back into fulfilling that old role?
  • Can you also see how your siblings’ viewpoints reflect their life-long family roles and responsibilities?
  • Seeing that, can you adjust your stance to accommodate what’s important to them?
  • Can you ask them in a different way to understand why your concerns are also valid?

As children you were always testing boundaries, and the extent of your power to get what you wanted relative to your siblings. That’s also where you learned about competing for seemingly scarce resources such as parental time, attention and affection – all of which you were constantly monitoring and measuring as children.

Today as adults, it’s time to let all that go. In the interest of providing the best possible care for your parents, it’s time to compromise, and be willing to not have things all go the way any one person wants. And while some of your siblings might not (ever) be interested in making those kinds of changes, you yourself making them will create a whole different experience for you. You might think of it as “he who is the most self-aware wins (the most peace of mind).”


Smoothing out sibling strife has valuable side benefits!

It’s also important to realize that the styles of communication and interaction you learned in these relationships, based on what seemed to work and what didn’t, naturally carry over into your relationships with others as you explore the world beyond your family. This can be a problem, because while your position in the family power structure, and your management of these dynamics, identified what appeared to work reliably and consistently for you all the time, you don’t realize that that was only working at that particular time and with those particular people.

Using those same self-protective and potentially dysfunctional communication and interaction styles as an adult, with people who aren’t your siblings, can be like speaking Greek to a Spanish person, and displaying behaviors that to you are perfectly normal, but to them seem a little bit crazy. They are not going to understand you the way you intend, and you aren’t as likely to achieve the outcomes you desire – whether it’s with your boss, your significant other, or tech support desk!  It’s just a recipe for struggle.

So…it really is worth taking the time to do your homework and see yourself with a little more clarity!


Note: It’s important to acknowledge that those who are only children haven’t had the chance to engage in sibling rivalry! That is the case for many people, and while this may be good news in some cases, it also creates a different set of challenges. Their early experiences were primarily with their parents – a whole different power structure and dynamic – but they have also tested boundaries and established roles with friends, cousins and others along the way. So if that applies to you, look at the significant friendships and other relationships from your early life. That will give you a basis with which to figure out which roles and reactions in challenging situations are likely to get you the outcomes you want, and which are more likely to backfire.

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