Working Collaboratively with Your Siblings as Parents Age

Sibling relationships are significant and often the longest-lasting. They profoundly impact our emotional and social development and well-being throughout childhood. As we move into adulthood, they frequently influence us as we venture out of our childhood homes and establish new families and relationships. Our relationships with our siblings as adults depend on the quality of our childhood bonds, parental expectations, physical proximity, personal responsibilities, new partners, differing expectations, the status of our parents’ marriages, changes in social status, or religious or political allegiances. As we settle into new families and friendships, connections with siblings may become a source of support or conflict. Still, barring crises or family upheavals, they usually have less impact than during childhood.  

As parents age, siblings often engage in intense communication over emotionally laden and complex issues. Intense and fraught interactions may occur over caregiving responsibilities, healthcare decisions, end-of-life planning, “ambiguous loss” as parents decline, the death and dying process, and ultimately, the distribution of family assets. Each event or change requires more coordination and discussion. 

While differences and even discord are sometimes impossible to avoid, there are steps you can take to mitigate conflict, facilitate smoother decision-making, and even bring about more supportive relationships. These steps include:

Avoid lasting damage.

Given the need to address complex, charged issues and the addition of new problems over time, the aging process can cause harm to sibling relationships that reverberate for years. Avoid toxic expressions such as accusations (“You never do anything”), labeling (“What a moron”), dismissal (“What do you know?”), or implications of sinister motives (“You just want to avoid work”). While you may not always be able to avoid harmful words in the heat of upset, you can repair it by offering an apology or acknowledgment.

Watch for “toxic alliances.” 

You may coordinate more with one or more siblings if the rapport is better or if they can better help; others may feel left out, leading to “us against them” mentalities that fuel hurt and resentment. Try as much as feasible to include all siblings in significant discussions or tasks; avoid ” gathering evidence” during disagreements by referencing others’ opinions or implying that people are on “sides.” 

Facilitate a “truce”

When interactions around aging parents begin, your siblings may reference past grievances. Instead of defending or counter-attacking, it can help to offer an acknowledgment or apology (“Maybe I haven’t been as attentive an aunt as I could have been.”). If you feel upset about previous issues, refer to them generally or propose you talk another time. (“I hold hurt feelings from when my kids were young. Let’s make sure we talk about both our concerns so we can work better together.”)

Attend to your relationship, not just the tasks at hand

Whether you have kept up or grown apart, focusing on others’ needs and interests is always helpful. Ask about families, careers, or interests and connect around shared interests and memories. As the relationship strengthens, you and your siblings will better navigate the problems that arise, fostering a sense of hope and optimism.

Make Space for Thoughts and Feelings

Parental illness, decline, and death bring up fear, sadness, anger, and other grueling emotions. Arguments reflect the power of these feelings. Acknowledging the emotions involved (“I’m sure all of us are in shock right now.”) can help calm things down. Hearing and validating your siblings’ feelings (“Of course it’s upsetting”) can help them be less reactive and more understanding.

Express Opinions Thoughtfully

As parents age, complex decisions accumulate: which doctors and procedures seem best, what levels of care parents need, which attorneys to use, and more. Differences of opinion are inevitable. Couples and communication expert John Gottman recommends “soft startups” during disagreements. Statements such as “I know you’ve thought your opinion through” communicate respect and may help them be open to your ideas. Avoid ordering, judging, or putting your sibling on the defensive when you express yourself. Be specific, using “I” statements: (“I’m concerned about this doctor because___and I’d like us to look at this one because___”).

Managing the complexities and charged emotions that come with your parents’ aging, decline, and death is inevitably hard; sibling conflict can make it unbearable. By attending to the quality of interactions with your siblings, you can limit relationship damage and find ways to make your relationship more supportive as you move through difficult times. 


Posted by Jonah Green 

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