Family conflict during parental illness

Family conflict is not unusual

Family conflict is common within the family when a parent is unwell and starts to require more care from other family members

These demands can affect the other member of the couple, other relatives and particularly siblings as they sort out their caring of the parent

The reversal of roles and power that takes place between the parent and child during illness can potentially develop into a difficult family situation

Potential triggers for family difficulties

Old rivalries

Over the years, parenting may not have been divided up fairly between siblings and old rivalries may emerge in a parental  illness situation

Strongly held beliefs about relationships can also start to emerge at these stressful times, e.g. the feeling the parent always liked another sibling more

There can be a realisation within a family that is could be the last chance for a child to get parental approval, so they will fight hard to get it possibly, even at the risk of upsetting others

Dividing up care

The division of care amongst the family can often cause resentment

Some may consider others are not doing their fair share and not pulling their weight which can put a great stress on relationships

Open family discussions and forward planning in terms of responsibilities can avoid some of the conflict

It can happen that one sibling is not doing their fair share of practical caring, but is worrying and thinking a lot of the time about their parent, so in their own mind, they feel they are contributing

For an only child, there are some positives as they do not have to negotiate with other siblings on decisions and there is no one to fall out with, but also they have total responsibility and no one to share their concerns with

The carer as part of a couple

When the parent is part of a couple where one of the parents is the main carer, the real issues that the ill parent is causing may never seen by the children

The caring parent may be in denial, or want to hide the true extent of the problem.This is often seen with illnesses like dementia

If anything happens to the carer partner, or if the symptoms suddenly worsen and the carer can’t cope, this can be a huge shock to other family members as the seriousness of the problem suddenly emerges

In the case of the carer partner dying  this situation is almost like a double bereavement for the children

Replaying old arguments and bearing old grudges

This can emerge when the parent-child relationship is conflicted

It could be when your parent was not there for you in times of need, i.e. maybe when you needed help with a young family and they were always to busy to lend a hand

Maybe you never had a brilliant relationship with your parent to start with

Two things can happen as time passes

  • As your parent gets older, you and they can soften and the relationship can get better
  • Or you really want your parent to know you are resentful and all the reasons why you feel that way

Outside help can help you draw the line under these resentments and help everyone involved to move on.

Different sides of your parent’s personality

It is not unusual for your parent to behave very differently to different groups of people

They may show one side of their personality to close family and certain siblings and behave quite differently with others

So a person who may come over as confident, chatty and engaging to some people may behave very differently with their children, or with one child , where they are always awkward and argumentative

This is hard to deal with, as it might feel like you are being punished by your parent and can cause resentment

Parental surprises and secrets

There is a tendency in parents’ latter years for things to crawl out of the woodwork and take us by surprise

Family secrets, situations of disgrace, long lost siblings, surprise step sisters and brothers

All these circumstances can shake up and test a family.

Discussing residential care

There is one golden rule in a family situation: do not assume anything in relation to the decision about residential care

This applies to siblings, other relatives and to the parent themselves

You should never assume or act as if someone cannot make a decision

Age should not be used as a reason to discount somebody’s views

Cultural views on care should also be considered

The situation is particularly difficult when family members can’t agree that the available care facilities outside the home will be adequate

It can be a very good idea for all family members to go together to meet staff, see around the facilities and discuss future care plans, so everyone is operating on the same knowledge and expectations

Discussing death

The current advice is to talk about death, think about it and plan it

Get parents to say and write down as much as they can about what they want to happen in their later life and in death

The more that is written down now, the easier it will be for everyone and less quarrelling will take place if wishes have been clearly set out

This can include living wills, funeral arrangements and really anything the parent has strong feelings about.

Recognising this is a stressful time of life

The Pivotal Generation

This is the generation that is not only caring for their ageing parents, but also for younger children, teenagers and young adults trying to find their way in life

It is a generation living in very tough economic and financially demanding circumstances

It is now a society where potential inheritance often pays for parental care and income is being drained in supporting our own children

It is a generation that is dealing with losses, parents dying, children leaving home

It can be a very unfulfilling time and it is no wonder that families get into difficulties

The positive contribution of the elderly parent

On a more positive note, the elderly parent can give so much back to the family

It may be a last chance to know about their life story and that of their generation

Using time with them to go through photo albums and diarie, taking video of parents speaking about themselves and their life can be rewarding and fun

This can be the perfect time to get the grandchildren involved too as part of pulling the generations together, maybe developing a family tree or a memory box

If we show our children that we are doing things in the right way with our parents, then we will be acting as a role model for them in the future

Look after yourself

Give yourself time of your own

Think about what sustains you and keeps you going, whether it is running, cooking, theatre trips or watching TV  and make sure you reserve time for it

Ensure, if possible, that you have someone you can discuss things with, such as friends or family or outside help…anyone who will help you share the burden

Where to get help

Due to the stresses this can put on individuals or across the family, it could be helpful to see a family therapist, either individually, or as a family unit

There is no right time or situation to do this, rather it is when and if you feel it might help, or you have tried all the other options you can think of

For some, this can be very early on, for others when they feel they are near breaking point.

Once again, it is worth noting that these family conflicts are very normal in caring for parents , as is asking for help in this situation.

Grace Consulting provides affordable fee-based independent advice to help you choose the best care option to suit you and your relative’s needs and wishes. Our Care Advisers provide the knowledge and support you need to make the right decision for you and your family. is partnering with Grace Consulting, the UK’s leading provider of personalised independent care advice, who, for over 40 years, has specialised in finding the best possible care for older people. Please note this is not an Age Concern or Age UK service.

Call now on 01483 209626 to get the help and advice you need at our preferential discounted rates

Or fill in the form and we will contact you,

Esther Usiskin Cohen is an experienced Family/Systemic registered psychotherapist, trainer and supervisor, who works at the Tavistock Clinic, London. 




  1. Caring at a distance | My Ageing Parent says:

    June 9th, 2012 at 6:35 pm (#)

    […] The imbalance in caregiving may be self-imposed and the martyrdom self-fulfilling. The one who takes on the duty may shut out others willing to help, rejecting all their offers and suggestions, thus creating family conflict […]

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Other Life - Caring - Carers Articles

Caring for older relatives with dementia

02 Jul 17

It can be very upsetting having to witness the decline in the mental abilities of a…

People with ageing parents must talk

18 Dec 16

It’s important for people caring for elderly to talk How it started Ruth* was approaching 50,…

Caring for elderly harder than it used to be

14 Dec 16

Most of us were brought up with the fairytale notion of the perfectly happy family As…

What does being a carer entail for you?

20 May 16

Are you a carer of a loved one, who is older, disabled or seriously ill?  Whether…

Supporting a parent with dementia

23 Sep 15

When a parent is diagnosed with dementia, the effects of the illness become all consuming. The…

From our forum...

11 Jan 16 - jennifer
24 Sep 15 - benno

Shop Online - view all


Fannypants® is an award winning brand for incontinence underwear. It comes with removable, washable and reusable…

Find out more

National Trust Memberships

Join as a National Trust member and enjoy unlimited access to hundreds of beautiful places. 0000

Find out more


Order from Florist by 3pm for same day delivery. 7 day freshness guaranteed. 0000

Find out more