Carolyn Hax: Advice

Overbearing in-law making kid wary

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: Our daughter is 12. My sister-in-law is crazy about her, but she’s also overbearing and controlling. Our daughter doesn’t like to spend time with her, which hurts us to no end. I would like them to have a real relationship.

How can I navigate this tricky path? How do I tell our sensitive sister-in-law that our beloved daughter finds her tough to take? How can I preserve the relationship? I’ve suggested that the three of us do things together to increase our daughter’s comfort with her, but our sister-in-law won’t do that. She wants our daughter all to herself on her time.


This isn’t “tricky”; it only seems so to you because you want to accommodate your sister-in-law (“Silla”), and believe Silla has some say in her access to your daughter. You shouldn’t, and she doesn’t. Silla’s insisting on alone time with a child who she knows isn’t comfortable with that is as red as a flag gets. No exaggeration.

What Silla actually does may turn out to be harmless, yes, but the foundation is 100 percent wrong: Silla wants what she wants for herself and has no regard for what the child needs. That right there is the basis for every single incidence of non-accidental harm to a child.

And look at your stance: It “hurts us to no end” because your daughter doesn’t enjoy her “overbearing and controlling” aunt? What about celebrating your daughter’s excellent instincts, and willingness to advocate for herself? Even better — learn from her.

You are the parent. It is your job to speak for, protect and respect the needs of your minor child.

But you can’t do any of these while remaining blind to actual risk. Just guessing, but I expect you’re wary of strangers around your daughter — and yet you want to encourage a “real relationship” between your daughter and a woman who, again, prioritizes herself and doesn’t care how your daughter feels. Or what her parents think is best.

If you’re giving Silla a pass because she’s family, rethink that. Any reputable abuse-prevention resource will tell you most abusers aren’t strangers, they’re people familiar to the child.

Again — I recognize that Silla might never hurt your child and never mean to, but you still have to reckon with her complete disregard for what your daughter wants and needs emotionally, which means you still have to refuse to grant her unsupervised access. Awkward for you, yes, but you and Silla are the adults; your comfort and Silla’s feelings do not trump your daughter’s safety.

So tell Silla this: “If you want to spend time with (daughter), then you’ll spend time with both of us.” That is, if you truly grasp how inappropriate Silla’s behavior is. If you don’t, then you can’t protect your daughter from manipulation even by supervising. (Suggested resources: “The Gift of Fear,” de Becker; “Life Skills for Adult Children,” Woititz/Garner; counseling.)

If Silla refuses, don’t budge: “OK. Let me know if you change your mind.”

If Silla erupts: “Disrespect for my rules and (daughter’s) needs is not the way to get what you want here.” Then don’t discuss it further, because this is not a negotiation, it’s a boundary. Until you embrace it and Silla respects it, she remains outside its gate.

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