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Why Does Mom Tell Me One Thing and My Brother the Exact Opposite?

These inconsistent messages can be confusing under ordinary circumstances but make family caregiving much more complicated.

mom tell me one thing and brother the exact oppositeMany seniors will tell one adult child one thing, and another the exact opposite. Perhaps it’s the fact that mom always favored her brother and wanted to please, not worry, him. Even now, the dutiful daughter (not the distant son) was tasked with caring for her, but she didn’t hear half of the story. That’s because this contradictory communication reveals something about human behavior. We all choose what we say to whom and when, because we have different relationships with different people, and we want to make different impressions on them. As a result, mom may be emotionally expressive with one family member and stoic with another. We often change our story or edit it for different audiences, says AARP’s article entitled “Mixed Messages Complicate Caregiving.”

When an aging parent gives contradicting stories or says the exact opposite to her adult children, it can fuel the natural tendency of rivalrous siblings to disagree about the parent’s condition and needs. Caregiving works best as a team, and family members must work together. They should begin with the same basic information and a common vision. Receiving different reports from a parent undermines that. Here are some ideas to help family caregivers, sort through a care receiver’s messages to determine what he or she really needs:

Listen for impression management. When your elderly parent looks you in the eye and tells you how she really feels, you are apt to take her at her word. An alternative is to hear it as a part of the truth specially edited for you based on your relationship with her and the impression she may be trying to create. It’s common for a parent to subconsciously try to protect you from worry, so you can focus on your own life or maybe it’s to fuel your worry to keep your attention on her.

Compare and contrast. If you don’t assume that she is telling you the literal truth, then you won’t assume she is giving the identical message to all of your other family members. You also won’t assume that if they have different impressions than you, it’s because they’re wrong or are in denial or aren’t the parent’s close confidant the way you are. Compare notes with others to see what they’ve been told to see if it is the exact opposite. The point is to gain a sense of the complexities of interpersonal communication in these situations and the need to investigate more fully how that parent is functioning.

Confer regularly as a team. You can develop consensus about your parent’s condition and caregiving needs, by using regular group texts or having at least quarterly conference calls in which each family member reports his or her perceptions. Then, as a group, determine what you know for sure and what is still unclear. Next, create a plan to try to gain greater clarity, by talking with physicians and other professionals about your parent’s status or having a different kind of conversation with that parent.

Comfort but don’t confront. Talk to your parent one-on-one or in small groups. Tell her that all of you’ve been talking about how she’s doing and that you want to make sure she’s living her life in the way she wants. Ask how that would be ideally and what you can do to help her. This message is threefold: we’re in this together and are communicating with one another regularly. We all want to support you with the right services. And let’s plan together how to figure this out the best way possible.

Reference: AARP (July 2, 2019) “Mixed Messages Complicate Caregiving”

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