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Setting A Foundation for Sibling Relationships

Recently there was another article in The New York Times about fostering good relationships among siblings while they are young. As many of us grownups know, the dynamics we learn as kids growing up in the same household often predict the strength of our relationships as adults. Once we become parents we become all too aware of how easy it can be to mess up parenting.

As a Family Mediator working exclusively with Parents and Teens and older Siblings/Seniors, I see the creation of family dynamics through my work with parents and their adolescent children and the results in the adult children I work with who are often arguing over the care of their parents or estates and bringing that learned behavior into the room thirty or more years later. They are older now with the same dynamics ruling their relationships.

Something the parenting specialists talk about is recalling what our parents ‘did wrong’ and avoiding those mistakes or resisting replicating that behavior. We can give our children the good experiences that can bond them when they are young but it takes more than that. How do we set examples and how do we teach them to deal with conflict?

No parent wants to be preached to but here are some suggestions gleaned from my professional observations, my childhood and my years of parenting.


Saying ‘I’m sorry’ and meaning it can be very powerful. Not a trivial and passing apology that is obviously insincere but one that shows thoughtful recognition of the behavior or words that precipitated the hurt and/or anger. The ‘Me Too Movement’ has generated a lot of talk about genuine apologies. It’s worth reading some of these articles to understand how to apologize with meaning. A generalized ‘I’m sorry I hurt you’ is not as effective or meaningful as an apology for a specific action. This skill is important for both parents and children. Parents should be modeling the art of apologies for their youth and showing them the benefits of righting and overcoming wrongs while acknowledging the other’s feelings. This will serve them well over a lifetime and can quell conflicts later on. It’s surprising how many adults had parents who never apologized to them while expecting apologies from their children.

Promoting Sibling Unity

Siblings should be peers and see themselves as such. Not that they cannot be assigned the role of babysitter or responsible older child, but they should not be seen in an elevated role that can provoke resentment or allowed to abuse that role. A good rule to help with that is ‘no ratting’. No child wants to feel like his/her sibling is with the KGB. The rule might be no ‘telling’ on your brother or sister unless the consequences are life threatening or potentially harmful or serious. Any telling on a sibling should be able to demonstrate good judgment so a parent can explain the cause for worry and can justify why the sister/brother was not ‘telling on him’ but trying to help. The resentment of ‘ratting’ lingers into adulthood.


Feel free to put children into other shoes. If a child is being noisy and waking up others, ask them how they would feel if it happened to them. Or explain that when they want some consideration they may not get it because they didn’t extend it to others. And show appreciation when children are considerate as reinforcement.

Let Them Resolve Arguments

When children come to you yelling about an argument they are having (and hoping you will take sides) you might want to point out that it is their disagreement, not yours and they have to resolve it. Do not take sides. With the exception of the rare ‘Solomon decisions’, the rule could be that the two should sit at a table, across from one another, and talk it out. A parent might want to serve as a mediator to keep the conversation on track and civil, but instead of dictating a decision, help them resolve it themselves. You can sit and listen and offer suggestions rather than being judge and jury.


It’s amazing how kids are born with personalities. I can still see some consistency in my children now that they are grown. Having different traits is not the same as ‘labeling’. You might see that one of your children is more responsible than the others or one is more independent. Labeling kids as ‘difficult’ or ‘bossy’ is different and stays with them. If there is behavior that needs correction, work on that with them but don’t brand them. Whether the ‘brands’ are negative or positive (the pretty one, the gifted one), those distinctions are not helpful. Don’t let personal traits that may be attributable to age appropriate behavior (particularly teenage behavior) define them as they grow and mature.

Families that can celebrate holidays and good times together over a lifetime are the lucky ones. It doesn’t have to mean that everyone is best friends, but those who have lingering resentments are most likely to alienate themselves from the larger family life, depriving themselves, their children, their adult siblings and the family as a whole the benefits of important relationships that enhance our emotional growth and instill a sense of belonging and security.

Being Happy With The ‘New Normal’

In a recent New York Times Well article by Jane Brody, she wrote, “…aging and illness alter who we are, so move on and make the best of the here and now.” This article and statement reminded me of aging parents who are stubborn and refuse to acknowledge and accept their limitations as they age.

In our mediation practice, we have come across parents living alone in their homes insisting that at the age of 90 they are able to maintain their independence and perform the daily tasks of grocery shopping, preparing meals and getting to doctor appointments on their own. While this sounds impressive and seems like a goal we should all try to achieve, and some nonagenarians are able to do this, the truth is that at the age of 90 these daily tasks become more challenging and stressful. If the adult children observe more closely, they will see their aging parents become more exhausted by these tasks, become more frustrated by these tasks and take unnecessary risks that increase their chances of falling and injuring themselves. So why do aging parents go to such lengths to be independent — Pride! Our aging parents have pride in aging gracefully and independently without seeking assistance from their children. Although they have aged, they have no intentions of changing the way they live. We all should get that and applaud the determination of a 90 year old to maintain a life that they have lived and have enjoyed for such a long time. However, there comes a time when circumstances have changed and it may no longer be wise for aging parents to continue living alone as if they were 50 years old.

So what can an adult child do in this situation? First, act early and quickly to prevent a crisis and serious accidents. As an adult child who either is involved or will become involved with your parents’ care, you have standing to discuss with your parents the ways in which they can balance their aging process with their desire to remain independent so that they remain safe. That may include getting an aide for a few hours a day who can help with cooking and doctor appointments and it may mean ordering groceries online instead of walking to the grocery store. It may also mean moving to an independent or assisted living facility. And if necessary, this discussion may progress as there are further needs for a safer environment.

The other important suggestion, which Ms. Brody highlights in her recent article, is that our aging parents should learn how to embrace and adjust their expectations regarding their changed circumstances. Instead of becoming angry and upset about the aging process, accept the changes and strive for a successful life with accommodations that make life easier and safer. There is no shame in accepting a new life style as you age. Perhaps as our parents age, they can become more involved in figuring out how they can create a new life that takes into account new safety limitations but is nevertheless fulfilling and engaging.


The legal definition of capacity is the “ability, capability, or fitness to do something; a legal right, power, or competency to perform some act. An ability to comprehend both the nature and consequences of one’s acts. Capacity relates to soundness of mind and to an intelligent understanding and perception of one’s actions.”

As mediators, we are required to take capacity into account when mediating. Capacity as we define it is the ability to make a rational decision and then to be able to enter into an agreement and stick to it. Sometimes, when discussing proposed mediation sessions with adult children talking about their parent’s care we will discuss whether their parents can participate. People with advanced dementia or elderly parents with diminishing mental capacity are not able to coherently participate in decisions that ultimately everyone present will need to agree upon and carry out.

We had one person call us about an elderly couple who were so disruptive in the facility where they were living that they were about to be evicted. The parents argued loudly and often. Their child called us, anxious for us to mediate with them and assured us that they were competent to participate. Upon interviewing them, it was apparent that neither was mentally capable of engaging in the process or reaching any agreement to arrest the behavior. It takes more than a brief discussion to assess whether a person has dementia. Often brief conversations can seem rational but longer conversations can reveal diminished rationality.

But it’s not just elderly or demented people who pose a problem. It’s not unusual for us to get a call from a sibling about mediation and during the course of the conversation have them mention that a sister or brother is ‘crazy’. Often times it may not be that particular sibling who is crazy; it may just be that he/she is hard to get along with or is the obstinate one in the conflict. But every once in a while, there is a family member who is mentally impaired and truly cannot engage in a serious conversation or the decision-making. Generally we have at least one difficult sibling in a mediation session but they are all equal participants in the discussion. We had one case where the siblings misrepresented/misperceived the ability of one sister. Although she was able to present herself reasonably well in an individual conversation, she was not able to follow a group conversation, much less make a commitment; even when a resolution was reached she would backtrack as if the issue was never resolved. Ultimately a general solution was found to resolve the circling dynamic that was hindering decision-making but individual issues were not able to be reasonably decided.

We rely on the other participants who know the person well to make that initial decision and ultimately our own judgment after speaking with him/her. If the participant is unable to stay on topic, translates the discussion into irrational conclusions or shows chronic confusion, we generally question whether that person can fairly participate in mediation.

As well intentioned as people might be, it is up to family and professionals to take capacity into account for planning. Have the parents accounted for the adult child’s incapacity when making their advanced planning? Has he/she been dependent on the parents up until the time of their death? Have they provided for their continuing care or housing or are they leaving these decisions as a legacy for their other children? Is this adult child able to be part of the conversations after a parent’s death? Is he/she capable of handling finances? Are the other adult children left with the task of including a sibling who doesn’t have the decision-making ability? These are questions lawyers and financial advisors should be asking as they help their clients plan for the future, the best time for these issues to be addressed.

Keeping Family Conflicts from Ruining the Holidays

November is here and the holidays are approaching! The excitement of decorating the house, creating dinner menus and specialty drinks, and being surrounded by family members is there-until some of the realities hit us. As we get closer to when our adult children come home and the extended family gathers, we start to remember the difficulties of having everyone in the house. Your children seem to argue with one another over little things when they are together, you find yourself walking on egg shells to avoid a fight with your daughter and none of your siblings want to discuss the elephant in the room: are your aging parents okay living at home or do we need to consider alternatives. It’s exhausting!

Being with our children and family should not be this difficult. These are our most important relationships in life and throughout the years we should enjoy our families as they grow. To improve our family relationships we may want to examine the way in which we communicate with one another.

To begin with, try having honest conversations with each family member in advance of the holidays and discuss the ways we can avoid the arguments. Acknowledge trigger points and hot topics dto be avoided. Honest conversations mean you have to leave your anger, guilt and fear out of the conversation and show your family your loving and supportive intentions to create meaningful relationships and fun for the holidays. In addition, it is equally important to take ownership of behavior that may trigger anger from your loved ones and discuss the ways in which you can reframe your words to modify the message. Your children and family members love you and you love them. There is no reason you cannot engage in conversations without someone becoming explosive. But it takes time, planning and an understanding that words and the way we speak to one another have consequences. As parents and as hosts for this Holiday season, we may want to shake things up and try a different approach to achieve the Hallmark Thanksgiving dinner we all want to achieve.

Happy Holidays!

The Vacuum Caused by Dementia


Recently I was at an event where a guest with Frontal Temporal Dementia was present. This is a brilliant man who has had the disease for over four years and is now left with a rapidly progressing, debilitating disease. The guests knew he had dementia although not necessarily the type. As is often the case, most people when thinking of dementia, were expecting Alzheimer’s Disease and seeing someone similarly afflicted. Many of the people were actually relieved to see how well he is functioning. This conclusion was based on the fact that he knew their names and was very sociable. The fact that he is incapable of speaking even the briefest of sentences or expressing himself verbally was not factored into their assessment. Frontal Temporal Dementia presents differently from Alzheimers. The person doesn’t become withdrawn. They lose all inhibitions – it does, after all, affect the temporal lobe – are unable to find words, and lose their muscle strength.

This is just one of the many isolating experiences caretakers for people with dementia, any kind of dementia, face: the gap between their reality and other people’s perspectives.

Friends who have relatives with dementia have described how after encountering friends or neighbors on the street, people will remark that the person with dementia seems to ‘be not that bad’. They base that on the fact that the person has been able to nod at appropriate times or cover for their lack of understanding in other ways. The caretaker however, knows that person can no longer watch or comprehend a television program and is incontinent, a very different perspective. It’s often these disconnects in reality that make the caretaker feel isolated. They are seeing the ravages of dementia up close while the fleeting glance can appear very different to those who are ill-informed or see a glimpse of it. Whatever the kind of dementia, it’s an isolating experience living with someone who has dementia.

A friend of mine who has a sister with early onset Alzheimer’s pointed out another aspect of dementia: unlike other debilitating and fatal diseases, those with dementia cannot express their wishes which creates a conflict-causing vacuum. I have seen this up close and it is a difficult situation. A person gets dementia and, even if he/she has clearly planned and expressed his/her wishes, family members and friends ‘know’ what the person would want. (If they haven not planned for the future, the situation is worse.) She hears, “I know she would want…” all the time, whether the person actually has some insight or not. Although every one may be well-meaning, the assumed desires of the patient may put the family members in conflict over the care of their relative. In my friend’s case, she has the power of attorney but needs to consider the desires of her young adult nephews and, in this case, her sister’s interfering ex-husband. In cases where adult siblings do not agree on the care and wishes of their parent, disagreements can fray relationships and leave the disabled parent without the care and services they need while the children argue about it. There are so many sensitive decisions to be made: taking away the driver’s license, insuring the person’s safety, getting an aide, deciding on the right living situation, getting the finances in order. These decisions all require a united family or at least one that is in agreement on important issues.

Advanced planning and expressing one’s desires about care are so important but often an avoided conversation. Caring for a person with dementia is stressful enough. A facilitated conversation might ease the way for moving ahead and getting the person with dementia the needed care. It is best to fill that vacuum with consensus.

Gail Goodman





Why I Should Have Chosen Mediation

My friend, let’s call her Cathy, has had a difficult relationship with her widowed father for a while now. She is part of an informal, blended family. Her father lives in a nearby city and is not married, but has been living with a woman for several years. The father lives in the woman’s house, spends summers at her summer house, is close with her daughter’s family, and overall has slipped comfortably into his significant other’s life. Cathy has been devastated. According to Cathy, her father’s girlfriend, let’s call her Mrs. X, has made no attempt to draw Cathy and her nuclear family into this extended, blended family. Instead of her traditional family holiday celebrations, the whole new family is included in holiday traditions that they would not normally celebrate, since they are not all the same religion. For Cathy, this has created a lot of resentment towards her father. Doesn’t he see what’s happening? Doesn’t he see that she’s left out. Why doesn’t he stick up for her? She and her father had some awful blowout fights and can hardly say a civil word to each other. The tension has gone so far as to effect Cathy’s brother and his family. Last year, I suggested to Cathy that she consider mediation so they can learn to listen and speak to one another  and come out with a plan to go forward. Instead, she convinced her father to try therapy with her, and each committed to two months. Her father didn’t make it past the fourth session.

Last week I sat down to ask her why she didn’t chose mediation. Interestingly enough, her answers were based on a misunderstanding of mediation and the process. Where as a friend did I go wrong?? I think we both made assumptions without ever clarifying the options. She went to therapy because she needed to get some of the old hurts and pain her father had caused dealt with and discussed, even though he has alway opposed doing that. Her therapist thought that this could work for them. It didn’t. Her father didn’t believe in therapy to begin with. Her father has a stereotypical view of therapy and who needs therapy and it doesn’t include him. This was not a realistic method for him to resolve any problems. His biases were already in place. She didn’t go to mediation because she didn’t think she would have the opportunity to communicate her pain and hurt he has caused her.

Now I explained the mediation process. How we interview each of them beforehand to find out their perception of the issues and then schedule one open-ended session where the issues are discussed in a non-confrontational way and hopefully, agreements are reached and the parties are able to talk to one another after they leave. Emotions come out, and there is room for it in the process, but we, as mediators, are going to keep the parties talking and focused on the issues they have identified. Cathy had an immediate problem: she and her father were losing their relationship. We insure the parties speak and listen to one another, and actually hear one another. Mediation is a problem oriented process.  It helps people resolve their conflicts, focusing on the problem at hand, and gives the parties a means to move ahead. Cathy would have been able to communicate her emotions and hurt, but in the end she and her father would have learned how to talk and listen effectively , be considerate of each other, and avoid ‘pushing each other’s buttons’.

Without asking, Cathy said, “we should have gone to mediation.” So, what were the selling points that indicated this was the better route? A la Letterman, let’s start with:

  • Number 4. Her father would have been more open to a process that wasn’t a therapeutic framework. Given his original biases, he was less likely to function well in that context.
  • Number 3: Although it was important for her to have her father hear her hurt and what the issues were for them, it would have taken them far longer than the time allotted, and possible, for them to really get into and resolve the roots of some of their problems.
  • Number 2 is the realization that she would have gotten skills that she could use when future problems arose. Her pain and emotions would be part of the session but the emphasis would have been on how they could go forward, which was the immediate problem for her.
  • And what she consider as the all important Number 1 is the ability to resolve the problems in one session. She left frustrated every time the therapy session ended and nothing was resolved. Whatever momentum they achieved, was lost when the time was up. She feels the opportunity to work through in one long session might have been a key point in helping them work through their issues productively.

Next time, I will try to be as clear with my friends as I am in my formal presentations.

Why Mediation Matters by Ruth Weinreb

I graduated law school 28 years ago and was looking forward to a career in litigation. I had taken classes in evidence, civil procedure and trial advocacy and was excited about litigating my first trial. After a short period of time, I was handling my own trials, loving it. I enjoyed the details of putting together the evidence, preparing the witnesses and sparring with my opponent. I even enjoyed writing the briefs. But after 28 years of litigation experience, 28 years of parties waiting three years for a final Order, and 28 years of parties not receiving a full remedy, I realized that mediation offered more than a viable alternative to litigation. Continue reading Why Mediation Matters by Ruth Weinreb

Parent/Teen Mediation: Why Kids Return to the Table by Gail Goodman

I enjoy mediating with teens and parents. The cases are sometimes referred by social services or probation, or sometimes a school counselor or social worker will recommend trying mediation. Initially I made the assumption that any young person coming in who has been referred by an official agency, some under the threat that this was the last chance before being taken out of the home, would come in intending to comply with the terms. This is not always the case.

After greeting the parents and teen, I explain the mediation process and the ground rules and tell them that there is a commitment to attend a one hour session for 4 consecutive weeks. The parents generally agree but the teen will usually, and sullenly, only agree to see how it goes. There are no guarantees except for the first session. Yet at the end of all those first sessions, they all agree to come back; that’s a 100% retention rate. This isn’t to say that every mediation resolved all the conflicts or necessarily ended ‘successfully’, but just having everyone return every week was something of a victory. What made them agree? What changed their attitude? Here’s what I got from some of the feedback and my observations. Continue reading Parent/Teen Mediation: Why Kids Return to the Table by Gail Goodman