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.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: 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.
DEAR CAROLYN: My husband is of the mind that it never hurts to ask for something (the baby sitter to stay longer, a restaurant to make a dish they’d discontinued, a neighbor to dog-sit for us, etc.). He feels people are always free to say no and he won’t be upset. I think he goes way too far, asking for big favors or accommodations, and there should be limits in what he asks of others.
Am I just oversensitive? I feel he puts people in awkward positions, but he thinks I am the only one who is ever uncomfortable with his requests.
Asking for Stuff
DEAR ASKING: It’s a bit obtuse of him (or willfully biased; you know his character better than I) to think no one is “ever” uncomfortable. There will always be those who struggle with saying no, see above, and being asked for big favors will put these people in a difficult spot. It’s just a fact of different emotional makeups.
Where you and your husband disagree, really, is on whose responsibility these people are. You look out for the vulnerable by not asking favors of anyone lightly. He lets people be responsible for themselves.
His way is both morally defensible and right, if sometimes cavalier, except: With a power imbalance, he can’t count on others’ freedom to say no. Boss over employee who needs the work, teacher over student who needs the grade, diner over server who needs the tip, parent over a child who needs the love – even a neighbor can feel coerced if peaceful coexistence is on the line.
Does your husband grasp this? Do you know? “No” to either means it’s time to stockpile examples and really talk this one out.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.