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Family conflict is nothing new


Growing up, I had what I thought was an ideal family. Holidays meant we all crammed into our grandparents' little house to laugh, eat and tell stories. All the cousins (nearly 20 of us) would run and play while the grown-ups yelled at us to pick inside or outside in between their card games or conversations in the kitchen.

Weekends were for little league and cousin sleepovers, and all the adults rallied together to make every moment special. We weren't just family, we were best friends. My childhood was truly magical, and as I got older I couldn't understand the families that were torn apart by arguments and disagreements.

Then it started to happen.

When the patriarch of our family passed away, arguments began (or as I now realize, intensified). My grandfather was no longer there to reign in the behavior that threatened to destroy his family. Seemingly, without his watchful eye, or perhaps the fear of his disappointment, the family practically disbanded. Holiday gatherings became less and less important to some, and tiffs between siblings at times became full-fledged wars.

Nearly fifteen years later, the matriarch of the family began requiring more care. That meant the disjointed family would have to band together to make it work. And if I thought the previous fifteen years were bad, I was in for a rude awakening.

Family conflict is nothing new, and as I talk to more people, I learn my family isn't all that unusual. As long as there have been families, there has been conflict. It seems no family is without a battle here or there, but throw in the responsibility of caregiving for an aging parent, and "conflict" can suddenly become a polite word for what happens.

Under the stress of caregiving, perfectly reasonable and mature adults can turn into pre-adolescent children arguing over who mom left in charge while she was at the grocery store. When siblings resort back to childhood roles and relationships with one another, little gets accomplished – just like in childhood.

The problem with this is that there is much more at stake this go-round. Holding onto past hurts or becoming consumed in a power struggle can result in more than someone's hurt feelings. Sibling conflict, whether related to a parent's care or other issues, jeopardizes the care their loved one receives.

To really provide the best care for an aging parent, siblings must focus their attention and energy on the care. But the question is how to do that with all of the conflict in the way.

It's important to realize that not every hurt feeling will be soothed, nor will every wrong-doing be made right. There may be some things that just have to be put aside, even if it seems unfair.

If there is one issue that that seems to get in the way of working with each other, it should be discussed. Using "I" statements tend to get the best results when talking about a hot issue. Focus on your feelings, or better yet, leave the past behind and talk about the future.

Just a couple of sentences can smooth the waters enough to start focusing on a loved one's care.

"I know we haven't been especially close in recent years, and I'm sorry about that. I really want to work with you to make sure Mom receives the best care. What do you think the best thing to do for her is?"

If family strife is a result of unbalanced duties in caregiving, it's time for the siblings to have a serious meeting of the minds. Again, try to keep the focus off of the past. Instead, discuss your parents' care needs and how each sibling can contribute.

Keep in mind that not everyone will be willing—or even able—to provide hands-on care. One sibling may be able to arrange and escort mom and dad to doctor appointments, while another who lives out of state may be able to provide financial support.

The conflict may never be completely resolved, but with a little focus, deep breathing, and tongue-biting, siblings can work together to help their aging parents. What strategies have worked for you and your family?

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