Fly Like a Seagull

How to deal with swooping siblings.

So your brother breezes into town for the holidays. He comes bearing gifts — and all kinds of advice about how to make things better for mom. 

Why didn’t you think of that? Oh, wait. You did.

Mom thinks he’s a genius. She’s thrilled he was able to find time from walking on water to visit. And such good ideas! 

You’re thrilled to see your brother, too. 

Also, you want to kill him.

Really? It doesn’t feel lucky

It’s not just you. This scenario is so common that it has a name. Patty Webster of The Conversation Project calls it the “seagull effect”:

“When an out-of-town sibling swoops in for a visit, thinking they know best and upending plans, they can create a messy situation (as seagulls often do).”

Patty is polite. Here’s how a less dainty business blogger describes “seagulling“:

“Where someone comes into your work, sh#ts all over it, and then flies away.”

And when you’re the one who’s stepping up — because you live nearby, or because you can handle it, or because someone has to — the last thing you need is more crap from a swooping sibling.

For one thing, contrary to popular folklore, getting hit by a bird bomb doesn’t feel lucky.

For another, smiling through gritted teeth and allowing resentment to fester for the sake of family harmony is a recipe for toxic stress. 

And if you snap and go nuclear, now you’re the problem child.

Birds of a Feather…

What can you do to stop the swooping? Here are some tips that can help:

See your seagull as caring and clueless, not malicious. Maybe your younger brother is the same jerk in an older body. Or maybe he thinks he’s really helping. Or he feels guilty when he sees how much you do.

“Most of the potential seagulls in your life truly care,” writes Webster,” [but] they may not show their care in the way you want them to…. They aren’t there to help in the day-to-day caregiving, and their advice may feel to them like they are helping.”

Webster’s advice:

“Share how you feel and how they might be helpful.” Or “tell them you can see how much the visit matters to your shared person (or to you) and that that’s help itself.”

Don’t assume you’ve thought of everything. Many or most of your sibling’s observations and suggestions may be old news to you. But that doesn’t mean a fresh perspective can’t be helpful. Sometimes it takes distance to see things you may be too close to notice. 

Communication is key. Talk with your sibling before the next visit to bring them up to speed on your parent’s condition, concerns and wishes. Keep them updated on a regular basis.

Tone matters. Be careful about using text and emails, where it’s easy to come off as terse when the topic is delicate or difficult.

Talk with your sibling about something else besides your parent. Take a break from the intensity of solving problems and deep conversations about heavy topics. 

Nothing about this part of the journey is easy. Strengthen your family connections whenever possible. 

Flock together. You’re going to need each other for the road ahead.

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Thanks for caring,

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