Cathy Cress M.S.W.

Mom Loves You Best

Family Dynamics

Sibling Stress: Welcome to the Holidays

Siblings may be biggest source of stress we have.

Posted Nov 08, 2010

As Gail Sheehy says in her excellent new book , Passages in Caregiving, (Harper Collins 2010,) we think that siblings will automatically support each other when aging parents fall apart. Sheehy quotes sociologists, Karl Pillemer and J. Jill Suitor, in a recent study they did concluding that siblings are inherent rivals and the biggest source of stress between human beings.

To answer the call to help siblings mend their wounds and begin to work together as brothers and sisters to support aging parents, I am launching this midlife sibling blog.

If you are a midlife sibling, perhaps you have a brother or sister to whom you hardly speak. Maybe you are about to see your siblings at the coming Thanksgiving feast and anticipate largely ignoring him or her or doing chitchat as you seethe inside. If you fit this description, you are in the same lurching boat as uncounted baby boomer siblings all over the world. That wound from childhood may still ache enough to keep you on the furrowed path your family followed when you were young. Now, however, you and adult siblings, nearing or at retirement age, may need to come together again to be part of a niece or nephew's wedding or christening, help plan a parent's anniversary dinner or oversee the increasing care of elderly family members.

At family rituals , like Christmas or Hanukah, adult siblings often are brought back together. The family stage is set up once more, but now the warring characters, may be brothers or sisters who have their own families and lives. If the sibling breach has not been cauterized and is still stiffened like a coiled wound, the wedding, bris or family ceremony can turn into high drama ignited by emotional flashbacks from childhood wreaking havoc again.

When an adult brother or sister is in a crisis and needs help from others in the family, this often slams siblings together again. It may be a serious illness, financial crisis, major depression or calamity. When family must team up to help a sibling with the ravages of illness, death of a spouse or any midlife crisis , wounds from childhood can unsuture. The spilled blood can prevent family members from giving the sibling in crisis the care he or she needs.

Midlife siblings may be shocked out of sleep by late-night calls from brothers and sisters frantically telling them of a crisis with aging Mom or Dad. Adult children are often forced to book last minute, high-cost flights, and gather in scary, sterile hospital rooms with brothers and sisters they have not spoken to in years. Siblings might stare starkly at each other, then have to face doctors and social workers who may ask the family to make excruciating decisions about Mom and Dad.

At times we avoid going to see our aging parents because of sibling wars. We want to steer clear of that sister who bossed us around when we were kids, because she is still telling everyone what to do. Or we want to duck the brother that Dad pitted against us when we were boys. Every time we see him, he tells us how he's got more money and bigger cars and we can't stomach him at the family table.

Those stepsiblings who entered your life when Mom divorced Dad and married again, destroying your warm family nest, are there at Mom's birthday. You are still angry at them for ruining your family, draining away your parent's love, even though you know blaming them is easier than blaming Mom or your stepdad. Or the baby brother you always knew Mom favored instead of you is going to be at the labor day family gathering , and you still say under your breath, Mom loved you best and I hate you for it.

Reasons to Reconnect

But in adulthood, some of us want to reach back and repair those cracks. We may want to be friends with our sisters and step sisters again because deep down we really care for them, in spite of the pain they may have inflicted upon us growing up.

Perhaps your stepbrother is getting married and his bride has asked your children to be flower girls in their wedding. You love your daughters and know they would glow in the spotlight, dressed as little princesses haphazardly throwing roses down the aisle. But you suspect that dormant old rage may reactivate. To honor this occasion and please your kids you think maybe the time for reconciliation is at hand.

You may know from Mom's present level of mental confusion that worse is coming. Yoususpect it's important to repair your old wounds with your brother and sister so you  can help your frail mother remain at home.

If you are searching for a way to forgive, forgiveness tolls have emerged in the past decade through Stanford ‘s Dr. Fred Luskin's work, Texas therapist Dr. Terry Hardgrave's work and my new book Mom Loves You Best Forgiving and Forging Relationships . If you are looking to repair brother sister wounds for the second half of your life, try forgiveness.