My in-laws are manipulating our children. How do I stop them?

Have faith in your children. They won’t be turned against you so easily, says Annalisa Barbieri

Illustration of two hands hovering above two children




‘Next time they come home with an idea “planted”, respond with lighthearted curiosity and start a conversation.’
Illustration: Lo Cole/The Guardian

I am worried my in-laws are trying to turn my children against me. They are mainly civil on the surface, but they’ve never liked me and I have had years of passive-aggressive comments, in particular from my mother-in-law. My husband and I are often excluded from family gatherings, which are regularly organised when they know we can’t attend.

My husband is a lovely man who views asserting himself with his family as confrontation. It took a long time for us to find success but we are now quite well-off. We come from very humble beginnings and do not brag, but the jealousy from the family has been evident. Every single time we take a holiday, we have to listen to comments about how children don’t like holidays and want to spend time at home instead. It’s purely jealousy, and of course the children love our holidays. I frequently invite my in-laws over and have also invited them to join us on holiday.

Recently my children came home from a family gathering and announced that they no longer want to go on holidays with us, but instead want to stay at home. We asked where this had come from and they got very upset and wouldn’t discuss it.

I am sure the idea was planted by my in-laws. I am worried about what could come next. I don’t want to start interrogating my children, and I am worried that my in-laws will somehow turn them against us. Can you please advise on how to react when my in-laws’ meddling descends to manipulating children?

Years ago, my parents were working nights and left me with a family member who was highly competitive with my mother. When the time came for my parents to collect me, this family member asked me to say to my mother that I didn’t want to go home with her and wanted to stay where I was. It was done expressly to hurt her. I saw this immediately, and I said no. She bribed me with a hanging mobile of dolls she’d made that she knew I coveted. I really wanted it, but I said no. Getting desperate, she offered me the mobile and some money. I said yes. The moment my mother came to get me, I darted through the door to her and showed her my bounty. I was five. I knew I was being manipulated and decided to do it back. She never tried it with me again.

The point of this story is that your children are your children; have faith in them and your parenting. They won’t be turned against you so easily. You are right not to interrogate them, because you don’t want to use them as sounding boards or messengers. Do not criticise their grandparents to them (this is what friends are for) or you will be putting them in an impossible situation. Do not use them as weapons in a fight between grownups: this absolutely destroys children.

Next time they come home with an idea “planted”, respond with lighthearted curiosity and start a conversation. Don’t defend; discuss. For example: “Oh, really? That’s an idea, isn’t it? What would we do if we stayed at home?” I would imagine that, having been listened to, the idea will evaporate. I would also imagine that next time you’re planning a holiday they will be all for it. Remember: this isn’t the big deal for them that it is for you; it’s not imbued with resentment and anger. Next time your in-laws say, “Children prefer staying at home,” say, “Is that what it was like when you were children? Did you go on holiday?” Remember: don’t defend; discuss.

Keep up with organising your own family occasions to suit you, and invite your in-laws. Personally I would go into overdrive with this: it shows willing to the children, and it puts you in control of schedules and the onus on your in-laws to say no.

Remember that your children’s relationship with their grandparents is theirs – not yours. If your in-laws are as manipulative and passive-aggressive as you say, your children will see it eventually all on their own. But also, that’s sad, isn’t it? Because there will be disillusionment and disappointment for your children. I know it’s hard, but I would try to be authentic and protect them by emphasising the good things about their grandparents: how much they love their grandchildren, etc. This will pay dividends in the long run. In so doing you are not acquiescing to your in-laws but protecting your children. And that’s worth it, isn’t it?

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

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Author: Ronald Tramp

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