Family Harmony for the Holidays

 November 2014

By Nan Hayes for Caring Transitions

Traditions play an important role in families and most of us feel the holidays are a good time to come together and reinforce those traditions. Some people look forward to these gatherings, while others approach them with great trepidation, especially when sibling rivalries, lingering animosities, and conflict or concerns over the health and welfare of aging parents cast a shadow over family events. So what’s the best way to deal with unresolved sibling issues during the holidays? Here are a few tips that may help you to navigate difficult family dynamics.

Focus on the Season:

Keep in mind that you are visiting family to celebrate a holiday. It is a temporary stop and not the time to try and repair all family issues in a matter of 24-48 hours. Keep things as positive as possible, whether you are just popping into town for a few hours or staying for a few days. Remind yourself that the best way to influence change in others is to lead by example. Better still, lead by humility. In other words, address your own shortcomings and focus on improving your own behavior first. After all, we do not have control over anyone else’s actions at these events; only our own.

Be especially aware of how your attitude and behavior toward other family members can affect young children and aging relatives. At both ends of the age spectrum, family environment can influence behavior and self-image. And, after all, wouldn’t you prefer to be the one everyone remembers as bringing joy and laughter to the holidays, not the one creating discord?

If mom or dad has undergone a recent change in health or circumstance, keep expectations reasonable. Importantly, don’t add to the stress everyone may be under by instigating or fueling arguments. Remember that the concerns you and your siblings have about your parents are mutual concerns. Use your time together to celebrate the best of what you family can be and schedule follow up phone calls or visits with siblings to discuss more difficult matters after the holiday; and even then, focus on fixing the problems, not fixing each other.

Plan ahead:

If you live out of town, realize that things may have changed with mom and dad since the last time you saw them. Depending on the age of your parents they may be showing signs of decline and the shock of that discovery may trigger you to say or do things that make them feel incompetent or resentful. Prepare in advance to handle changes with grace. Spend most of this visit listening and observing, rather than criticizing or voicing your opinion.

Plan ahead to deal with difficult family dynamics also. Think about your “hot buttons” and expect that your siblings will push them. Develop a strategy for managing challenging situations as they arise. Look for ways to diffuse typical confrontations. Create space between yourself and others if needed by going for a walk, turning the big game on in more than one room or relying on a book or magazine as a diversion. More importantly, be aware of the buttons you always push and try not to push them!

Create New Traditions:

If parents are declining, now may be the time to honor old traditions with new ones, but remember, in most instances your parents still want to feel they are the matriarch and patriarch of the family. They want to feel they are still in charge. You and your siblings can honor them and be helpful at the same time simply by allowing parents to voice how they would like to see the family celebrate the holiday before offering other options. Respect what they have to say and don’t just assume control without asking. If mom still wants to hold a large event at her house and has always done all the cooking, let her know you you’d like to help her prepare the meal and perhaps learn the old recipes. Invite a well-behaved niece, nephew or grandchild to help set the table and spend the day in the kitchen to keep things light. If the task is too much for mom this year, she may be open to a “potluck” format, where everyone can contribute but mom’s signature dishes can still be featured.

If parents are suffering from cognitive issues such as Alzheimer’s, keep gatherings small and don’t expect older adults to remember everyone who attends the gathering. Let friends and family members, including younger ones, know what to expect so they don’t feel slighted and don’t challenge mom or dad to remember names or the last time someone visited. Testing the memory of impaired persons will only serve to increase their anxiety.

If the parent is in a memory care facility, it may be best to bring a few family members to them instead of vice versa. In later stages of the disease, the difference between past and present becomes a blur, so Alzheimer’s patients are usually most comfortable in their current surroundings, whether at home or in a facility.

Follow up on Concerns

After the holidays be sure to address any major concerns with parents and siblings. You can call your parents and thank them for a nice event or let them know how nice it was to see them. Ask how things are going now that the holidays are over and let them know you are available to listen if there is anything they want to discuss in regard to their home, long term plans or changing health. Get in the habit of making regular calls each week, as this will give you the opportunity to turn those calls into productive discussions about serious issues.

Allow your parents to describe their best case scenario for the future. Embrace what they are saying and attempt to see things from their perspective before letting them know what you envision. If you don’t agree with your parents, don’t push your views on them, but gently reveal options that they may not be aware of or have yet to consider. Keep in mind that the concept of role reversal with aging parents is a myth. It is not very helpful or productive to believe that “the parent becomes the child and child becomes the parent.” Unless they are putting themselves at great risk, your parents have the right to live as they choose. To age with dignity they must be respected for those decisions, even if you do not fully agree.

When addressing issues with siblings, have a conversation where you both lay out your best case scenario for your parents and agree to process that information for a few days before responding. Make sure you both take your parents’ views into consideration. If you get into debates with siblings, stop and ask yourself what the argument is really about. Are you really trying to keep your parents safe, comfortable and happy or are you just trying to be "right?"

Don’t hesitate to consult with experts. If mom and dad are exhibiting signs of decline and seem to be struggling with finances, household tasks or health issues, you may not be the most qualified person to help them. Family dynamics, sibling rivalry and parent-child dysfunction may actually exacerbate what is already a difficult situation for your parents. There are a number of experts who can help without the emotional liability. Qualified financial advisors, elder law attorneys, senior advocates, care managers, social workers, senior real estate specialists, move managers, downsizing and decluttering experts can assist with many of the most common issues.

Contact us today for a free quote or to purchase services for mom and dad!

Best wishes for safe and happy holidays from Caring Transitions!