Sibling Conflict

Just before Christmas, a couple came to see me wrestling with an issue facing many adult children. “Michelle’s sister is responsible for her mother’s affairs,” her husband Bob reported. I quickly saw a furrowed brow on the wife and an edge to her husband’s normally smooth voice. The husband continued: “I know she has ‘borrowed’ $50,000 from Michelle’s mom – money her mother will probably never see again – and now we fear she’s slowly bleeding more money from her mom’s account.” I continued to listen, the wife (daughter) chiming in from time to time.

More than a few of our clients are dealing on a regular basis with a conflict between siblings involving aging parents. Money, healthcare, living arrangements, spouses, are but a few of the triggers causing families stress. My experience, however, tells me that the lion’s share of all these issues beats a path back to poor or absent communication. The pain has become acute: siblings practice very bruising and harmful passive-aggressive behaviors believing “peace in the family” trumps every difficult issue that bubbles up with mom and dad.

What follows is a summary of how I worked with this husband and wife to help them better connect with Michelle’s mother and create a healthier relationship with her sister now and going forward.

The first thing I did was look at Michelle’s husband Bob and say, “You must stop communicating to Michelle’s sister about her mother’s situation. As much as I respect you, your business background, and your strong communication skills [the man is a very successful business person] Michelle and her sister must talk to each other about their mother, not talk through you.”

At first, he pushed back. Then, he saw that continuing to run interference for these two sisters was not in his, his mother-in-law’s or the family’s best interest. If the conflict is going to be minimized, siblings must find ways to speak to each other about issues, not about each other using the other parent or in-laws.

In this meeting, I physically shifted my posture and continued the conversation with Michelle, looking only at her, not her husband. As an advisor, we can help our clients better navigate the often choppy waters between siblings by reminding clients that nothing can substitute for open, straightforward, honest communication.

Next, help the sibling with whom you have the relationship to define the roles she/he and his/her siblings have when it comes to parents. In some families, adult children naturally assume certain roles with little or no conflict. One child handles the finances, another communicating with doctors, a third making sure care issues are addressed. Who does what when it comes to parents must be defined and re-visited on a regular basis.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore four additional components that can bring healing to sibling conflict.

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