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Best Ways to Handle a Difficult Daughter-in-Law

You think she’s controlling. She thinks you’re a buttinsky. How to connect?

By Sally Stich and

(This article previously appeared on

It happens all the time: mothers-in-law (MILs) and daughters-in-law (DILs) just can’t see eye to eye. You clash, you argue, you give each other the silent treatment. But why?

“MILs and DILs who are different in temperament, problem solving, communication styles and attitudes often find themselves in a feuding relationship because they forget that in the midst of their differences they have something very dear in common,” says Melanie Greenberg , a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, Calif. “They both love the same man and they both want what’s best for the kids.”

In the wake of recurring conflict, however, they retreat to their corners of the ring and see their relationship as black and white.

Finding a Way to Relate

“If you want to find a way to relate to the seemingly unrelatable,“ says Greenberg, “you have to refocus on what you have in common. From that will come compassion.” And from that will come a happier, less contentious relationship.

(MORE: The 6 Most Toxic In-Laws and How to Handle Them)

As the more mature and experienced one, it's up to you, dear MILs, to find a way to relate. Here’s how:

1. If your DIL is rigid about her rules...

...remember that parenting trends change from generation to generation. You probably did what your pediatrician recommended and pooh-poohed your own MIL’s suggestions.

Remember, too, that inexperienced mothers, in particular, can find it helpful to follow rules. But unless the rigidity seems truly harmful to the child, know that the majority of children grow up just fine no matter what the prevailing trends are. If your DIL is really struggling with a particular issue, say gently, “Have you considered…?” If she’s receptive, great. If not, let it go.

2. If your DIL is a control freak...

...remember that controlling people comes from a place of fear and a lack of trust in themselves and others. Maybe she grew up with parents who were unreliable or always had a hidden agenda. To her, everyone has the potential to let her down. You can prove otherwise by being a reliable, transparent MIL and grandparent.

“If you promise to bring the kids home at a certain time, do it," says Greenberg, ”If she asks you not to feed them junk food at the mall, honor it.”

Show that you can be trusted, no matter how much you want to fudge a little. Also, ask open-ended questions to defuse a possible power struggle. (Example: “I’d love to see the kids this week or over the weekend, and my schedule is really flexible. How can we make that happen?”)

(MORE: When Your Adult Child has a Mental Health Issue)

3. If your DIL rarely shows appreciation...

...remember back to when you were raising young kids. In really stressful times, you may have also periodically forgotten your manners.


Or her behavior may stem from something else. Perhaps she wasn’t taught to show gratitude, so it doesn’t come naturally. Maybe she’s extremely self-absorbed, in which case, you need to focus on your own motives. Are you doing what you do primarily for the show of appreciation? Or are you doing it for the joy that accompanies helping the family? If it’s the former, says Greenberg, you either need to cut back on some of your offerings or change your expectations.

You can also try, in a calm moment, to say how you feel, since your DIL may not even be aware of the impact of her behavior. (Example: “We loved taking the kids on a car trip last week, and I’m thrilled you got some down time at home, but I felt bad not getting a thank you from anyone in the family.")

4. If your DIL is a Negative Nancy...

...remember that it may be her disposition (a pessimist rather than an optimist), plus learned behavior. “Some people automatically gravitate toward 'no' as their first response,” says Greenberg. “It’s a knee jerk reaction.”  The key is to approach with gentle curiosity. Is she really opposed to something or just accustomed to saying "no" before truly considering what’s in front of her?

The next time she says "no" to your offer or suggestion, ask, “What are your concerns?” There may, indeed, be something legitimate. Or not. Either way you can try to help her brainstorm for a positive conclusion.

Another possibility is to offer choices so she feels part of the process and less confined by one option. (Example: “I’d love to take you out for a special treat for your birthday. Would a mani-pedi, an evening of theater,or a bike ride to your favorite restaurant be fun? Or is there something else you’d really like to do? Your birthday, your choice.")

(MORE: How to Avoid Taking Sides in Family Arguments)

5. If your DIL is always competing with you over your son...

...remember that it takes two to tango and this is one dance you need to sit out. Once a son marries, says Greenberg, ”you must accept that you are no longer the most important woman in his life.” This doesn’t mean you can’t be close, but your job is to support their union, not your maternal relationship.

If your MIL competed with you, remind yourself how it felt personally and how it felt for your husband to be in the conflicted middle of two different but important women. Do not repeat the same behavior with your son and DIL.

As the MIL, you are in the best position to be a force for good, even when your personalities seem to clash. Seek the common ground, find compassion and you will realize a better working relationship with the woman your son chose to be his mate.

Sally Stich Read More
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