Sibling Rivalry -- 50 Years Later
All of us are unique, but family ties and upbringing cause us to share a common thread with our siblings. While this is the rule, we recently worked with a family that was the exception to the rule. Three kids, born within a few years of each other and raised in the same house with the same parents, could not have been more different. The eldest was a free spirit, still searching for purpose at age 50+, starting failed business enterprise after failed business enterprise, all the while expecting his aging parents to financially support him until he struck it big. The middle child was a bit of a rebel who found a career on the road away from the big city. The youngest took a more conventional path and became very successful in the corporate world.
Because they believed their youngest was the responsible one, mom and dad gave this sibling their power of attorney. Nonetheless, the parents were reluctant to burden their children with their concerns and needs, or give up control. Well into their 90’s, they were transitioning into assisted living and needed more help making decisions. The siblings were generally distrustful of each other, and the younger two were deeply concerned that their “failure to launch” older sibling was taking advantage of their parents' financial goodwill.
The main communication among family members was through e-mails, which usually turned into volumes of viciousness. A simple question would be returned with an essay about all the ills and unfairness that sibling had suffered throughout life, but contained no real answer to the question asked. Phone calls had become unbearable and no one was ever in the same place at the same time for face to face discussions. To compound matters, the parents had a bad habit of inconsistency – they told different things to each of their children.
We found that all the kids really wanted the same thing -- to be able to help their parents enjoy their remaining years. What the parents wanted was to maintain as much control over their lives as possible, but to create a structure for making decisions and handling their assets as they continued to age.
Through a series of relatively short family meetings over several days so as not to tire out the parents, we enabled the parents to express and clarify their wishes, and helped the siblings realize that it was their parents’ choice how their money would be spent, which for the time being would include continuing to support the eldest child. We helped the family realize their goal of being more transparent and communicating regularly. During the mediation, we coached each family member in ways to communicate effectively and to speak with each other with kindness and respect.