Carolyn Hax Live: How to handle a son's emotional blackmail

Aug 16, 2019

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax answers questions and responds to comments about a father caught in the middle, potluck weddings, a son's childcare demands and more. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hi everybody, happy Friday. 

Our 24-year-old daughter moved back in with us this year. She and I get along well, but she and her mom (my wife) butt heads a lot. My wife is disappointed that she did not go straight to graduate school after college and doesn't seem to have a plan for the next five years. Whereas I remember being that age and trust that she will get it together. I did odd jobs for at least five years out of college before heading to business school, and that seems even more normal these days than it did then. I am not sure how to broker peace between these two. When I tell either of them to let things go, they suggest that I am being sexist. It has reached the point where I really only enjoy their company separately, which is too bad because it's not a very large house.

Your wife is entitled to all her feelings, but she's not entitled to dump her judgments and unmet expectations on a fellow adult. Not even one who's back home. It's boundary time. Please set aside a time to have this out with your wife, when your daughter isn't around and you're calm and you don't need to be somewhere anytime soon. 

"This is not about whether you're right. This is about the fact that your disappointment is not helping. It's weighing you down, it's weighing [daughter] down, it's not motivating her to do or decide anything faster, and it's exhausting for me to watch.

"Do you see any value in giving her room to figure things out? Even if you disagree with it in principle, can you see a practical purpose to it? Do you think you can find a way to make peace with her taking this time?"

It it's across-the-board no, then I urge you to find a good family therapist, whom you see with your wife if she's willing, and solo if she refuses.

I don't know what to do with the "being sexist" charge, except to suggest you drop "let things go" from your lexicon.

A close college friend of mine (Anne) is a mom of a lovely 3 year old and for the past 3 years she has not stopped demanding that me & our mutual college friend (Joan - to whom i'm a bit closer to), have children because it's "the best!" and she's "so excited for us to get pregnant and we can all be mothers". Well, I'm only just getting married, and Joan is single. She has had some difficult abortion experiences and I haven't been tested for fertility, nor am I at that stage. We have both tried explaining to Anne that we're very uncomfortable with this topic & her approach, which is very assumptive and insensitive. At a recent girl's trip, Anne shouted about this again while drunk & a separate friend of mine (they had all just met for the first time) later confessed that she has a variety of genetic and medical issues which will make pregnancy difficult, painful and expensive - if she can get pregnant at all. Joan and I were hoping that this would be a wake up call for Anne, but we're both still anxious and dread what to do if she does this again. What else can we do to get through to her??

1. "Anne--new topic or we leave." Then leave if she doesn't drop it.

2. Give Anne room to talk about her stage of life right now. Ask about her kid. Ask if she is craving mom friends. Maybe she is just high on motherhood and wants everyone to be just as blissed-out as she is, but I'm more inclined to believe she's struggling and this is her way (or one of a few ways) she is trying to chip away at the stress/loneliness/self-doubt/etc. People who load up and start shouting obsessively about things they had to be asked not to obsess about generally aren't at peak selfhood right then.

I'm getting married in late October and it's going to be a small, casual wedding. It's still fairly warm that time of year and we're having it in our backyard and we were planning on having a potluck which is very common where I came from. My fiance was shocked and uncomfortable at the idea but I was able to convince her that people would much rather bring a covered dish than a gift and honestly my family would think we're putting on airs if we had some fancy catered thing. My fiance's family have now offered to pay for a catered BBQ since they're appalled by the idea of a potluck. My fiance wants to accept but I'm standing firm on principle since they're trying to shame me for upholding my longstanding family traditions. Besides - if I let them have their way in this, then it's the start of a bad trend of my in-laws running our life. My fiance and I keep going round and round about it. We both love your column and decided to see what you thought. So - catered BBQ or potluck, Carolyn?

This just sounds like a basic culture clash, and that maybe your in-laws aren't seeing it because it's not more dramatic, like coming from different continents or religions or speaking different languages.

More important, it sounds as if your fiancee doesn't fully grasp it as such, since she agreed to it only because you made a winning argument on bringing a dish. So maybe it's time to spell that out? What sold your viewpoint to me was, "honestly my family would think we're putting on airs if we had some fancy catered thing." That's very specific on the values you picked up "where I came from," and it's distinctive enough that it needs to be explained to people who "came from" places where providing food for guests is seen as a minimum standard for proper hosting.

Both of you, by the way--both customs--are appropriate and have valid principles to support them. 

And since this is a marriage we're talking about, I think there's more than the one possible mistake you mentioned here: It's not just about "the start of a bad trend of my in-laws running our life," but also the start of a bad trend of your seeing your values as superior to your fiancee's. Potluck can be lovely, and not just a bid for handouts; catering can be lovely, and not just a putting on of airs.

So, those are my thoughts: Yay to intimate community weddings, and yay to the two of you deciding how to handle this vs. buckling under outside pressure--but get back to work, please, on establishing a set of values that feels right not just to you or to her, but that fits like a glove on you both.


Gosh, what about dad having a chat with his daughter? He doesn't say if she is engaged in any kind of income earning activity that would provide her with funds for her cell phone, auto (if she has one) or other transportation costs, recreation, etc. Also, is daughter behaving like a full fledged adult in the household? That means being responsible for her own meals, or helping with meal prep or clean up if she is eating meals with her parents, keeping her room tidy, cleaning her bathroom (if she has one for her exclusive use), picking up after herself in the common spaces, and perhaps being responsible for one/few specific household chore(s). Just saying, while she's finding herself, she needs to also be "adult" for herself.

True. There was no indication that she wasn't, though, and a mention of odd jobs, and I (maybe naively) figured that advantage-taking would have been in the question had that been an issue.

Because that would be everything.

So, a patch for that argument hole: OP, if your daughter is creating more work for you and your wife by being at home, then it is not okay for you to be okay with that at your wife's expense.

FWIW, I am 100 percent behind chore-sharing expectations, and about 0 percent behind this-is-how-you-should-live-your-life expectations beyond a general expectation of capable people of being either self-supporting or on a reasonable path thereto. For those keeping score at home.

I know it's not really what you're asking, but... As someone who went straight to grad school after undergrad, I'm not convinced to was the truly *better* decision. It's true that I did it, and now I have the degree forever, but I found that older students in my cohort had a better developed sense of why they were in the program and what they wanted to get out of it. Aside from completing the degree, what would be the motivation for your daughter to go to grad school immediately?

Keeping the peace at home really hits (well) home for me. I graduated in 2011, right into the recession, and moved back home and my mother and I fought constantly for the year it took me to find a salaried job and move out. I was applying for retail, and she was disappointed. I was applying for entry level admin assistant position, and she was disappointed. She thought that because I had gone to college, I was settling by taking anything that sounded menial to her. It's come back around now because she has been unemployed for several years (by choice) and complains now about "needing a job" and "needing my help" but even though I've set up her resume and set her up on, she won't click the button and apply to anything. I suggested she start smaller and aim for a coffee shop or something but she scoffed that she needed "a real job making real money." I said, "Any job is better than no job, and any money is better than no money, which is what you're doing now" and ended the phone call. I'm so frustrated that at a time when I needed support and some space I got neither, but now I'm expected to give that to her because, as it turns out, finding a job is "hard."

When my daughter was 16 she got pregnant. She insisted on keeping the baby and made all kinds of promises about taking care of the baby but that’s not the way it works with a teenage mom in high school and then college, so I ended up doing the majority of the childcare. She eventually got a job and moved out; she is now a good mom to my 11 year-old granddaughter. My son is married and he and his wife had baby last year. My daughter-in-law wants to go back to work and they’ve asked me to take care of my grandson for them since I'm retired. I asked him how long they needed me, since I was willing to do it for the short-term (a few months) but not the long-term. My son said they would need me for a few years since they’re not comfortable with putting my grandson in daycare until he’s at least 3 or 4. I suggested they asked his wife's parents and he said that they didn't have time since they both work part-time. My son says he expected me to help them out since I did so much for his sister all those years ago and it would "basically be the same thing". I told him that no, I was 49 then and I'm 60 now, and they’re a married couple, not a 16 year-old with a baby. Now my son says I'm playing favorites “just like I always did” and that I'm forcing him and his wife to put my grandson in daycare when they’re not comfortable with that. My husband says they can figure it out like we did and he’s really against me even doing this for a few months. I’d like to do something for them though since I feel a little guilty that it looks like I’m favoring my daughter – do you have any suggestions?

1. Your son is emotionally blackmailing you. Shame on him.

2. You are falling for it. Don't. You weren't "favoring your daughter," you made the judgment you could live with under the circumstances you were given. We all do that.

3. Their anti-day-care bias is not a good look. 


I got so huffy I forgot the advice:

Hold your ground. You are not doling out two equal stacks of child-care years to each of your children; you are giving out equal responsiveness to wants, needs and emergencies. Should your son and his wife ever have a need or emergency of similar magnitude, you will be the first to show up to help.

Dear Carolyn, can you help me get it through my parents' heads that I barely want to celebrate Christmas, that we don't need or want anything except a nice time with them, that continuing to give us excessive amounts of presents when we've asked them not to for YEARS is actually disrespectful to us and stressful and wasteful and sets an example for my son that I Do. Not. Like... Or, can you help me come to terms with their actions in MY head? I've been dreading Christmas since January.

I'm sorry. This is a hard one to fight off, because the people ignoring your values, wasting their money, perpetuating disastrous consumer behaviors, and showing disrespect for your parental authority actually think they're being kind and generous.

They're not, it's a power move, but they've told themselves they're with the angels. And that's highly unlikely to turn in your favor just because you happened to find just the right thing to say.

But you can try! Because we're all about miracles around here. A combination of tactics might have the best chance of working.

1. Steer your parents to things your son will be excited to open and can actually use. If they agree to it, then this will give them the happy moment they crave, but on your terms.

2. Steadily suggest, re-suggest, and emphasize gifts of experiences.

3. Count to 10 after the festivities are over, start skimming off excess stuff and, as soon as you're sure it hasn't been missed, donate it to a good cause.

4. Trust your message to win out over theirs in the long run. For one thing, you're the parent, you get sooo much more air time. If you use your influence judiciously--and by that I mean you are loving, principled and consistent--your values will speak much louder than an annual gift frenzy can. And, getting swamped with gifts is not all it's cracked up to be. Kids actually get kind of hopped up and cranky and tend to ditch everything quickly for something they actually care about, which is often not material. Plus, mega-gift-givers become easy for kids to see through as they get older, because of 25 gifts, about 20 will be off the mark, because how thoughtful can their buying realistically be?

5. Also trust the problem to go away when your kids grow out of the Christmas frenzy.

So that should do it. If the consumer pile is the tip of a much uglier emotional iceberg, though, then you can also just opt out of Xmas with your parents. "I have asked, re-asked, then begged, for some restraint on the gifts. We're making other plans for Xmas. I regret it has come to this."

Seems like there's a reasonable compromise right there in front of you: Have fiance's family pay for the main entree (BBQ, fried chicken, whatever) and have your family and friends bring sides, salads, deserts, and whatever category Deviled Eggs fall into. But more importantly, this is a great opportunity for you and fiance to work out a solution TOGETHER. The way you've worded you question raises my suspicion that you are bulldozing your fiance, who may not be comfortable with this arrangement herself and is using her family as a scapegoat rather than confront you.

I grew up in a community like yours where most weddings were potluck and were lovely. I now live in an area where it just is not done and my (incredibly down to earth) mother in law was in shock when I floated the potluck idea. What I learned from my wedding is that it is a wonderful time to learn what values you each hold dear and why some things are important to you. In our case, I did not realize how rude a potluck gathering seemed to my inlaws and my then fiance. They could not imagine asking people to travel and then not serving them dinner. My family thought I was being "fancy" by getting catering, but "fancy" is preferable to incredibly rude. We did a simple backyard barbecue that my aunts made all sorts of side dishes for. My aunts felt like they could make something to show their love and participate in my day and my fiance was so much more comfortable not asking his aunts to make anything.

Thank you so much for answering my letter. I was upset and frustrated when I wrote you and I didn't actually expect to see it printed, but your advice really helped calm me and put me in a better mindset. My fiance and are took your advice as well as the advice of the other commenters, and we're in the process of getting a full-time home health aide to help with his grandmother (he has no other family, he also lost his parents in his early 20s). The plan is Monday through Friday she'd be with an aide, and on weekends he'll drive up to visit her. It's not ideal, but my sister wants to stay in the same high school and this seems more workable. We're also still trying to convince her to go to assisted living, which would be the better choice. Again, thank you so much for your your advice. You really helped me step back from the ledge, because I was really close to just ending things with my fiance because nothing else seemed to work out. Thank you so much!

You're welcome! I'm so happy things are progressing in a way that meets at least some of everyone's needs.

(Here's the original LINK)

My sister went on an extended vacation after she graduated from college and while there she went out with our cousin and had to much to drink and ended up kissing someone. She had been with her boyfriend for maybe two or so years by then. Our cousin witnessed the kiss and my sister asked her after to please not say anything to anyone because she was really upset about it and ashamed. She only told what happened maybe a year or so after it happened and she started to go to therapy to deal with things. It had obviously been weighing terribly on her, but she did not, and still has not told her boyfriend as she thinks that he will leave her no matter what she does, asking for forgiveness or trying to explain. Now that cousin is getting married and my sister is getting really anxious about attending the wedding with her boyfriend. She thinks that our cousin may have told other family members and one of them could bring it up in front of her boyfriend. I want to help her feel less anxious and have promised to run interference, but she's also thinking about emailing our cousin to make sure she hasn't told anyone/no one will bring it up. Is that the right thing to do?

The only way she will feel less anxious is if she gets out from under the weigh of her secret. Either she tells her BF the secret; breaks up with her BF and thereby renders the secret inert; or finds a way to release herself of the guilt and just accept what she did as the kind of stupid thing humans do and forgive herself for it.

I'm not a fan of Option 3, I think Option 2 is extreme, and she's likely to reject Option 1, but we're talking about helping her feel less anxious, and these are the ways to free herself.

You, of course, are just a bystander, and I generally don't advise bystanders because it's not your problem to solve, but hearing how messed up your sister is about this--when there's SUCH AN EASY AND OBVIOUS SOLUTION available to her and when the solution she has in mind is so epically terrible--has triggered all of my meddling impulses. 

Sorry for yelling.

Anyway. If you want to promote your sister's emotional well-being, then please urge her to tell her BF what happened. If he dumps her for the kiss or for the cover-up, then that's still better than her walking around knowing she's one blab away from having everything blow up. That's just no way to live.


I never knew that PEP had on-demand video courses. I know they get thrown out as a resource, but anyone can take their classes online.

Yes, I've posted this link before, and am happy to do it again. Thanks.

I was reading a past chat (where I also learned "for fox sake," which I'm so excited to know and use going forward) and in response to a question about naming children, you suggested that the "we" should "unburden ourselves of our 'there's one right way to do things and I'm the one who knows it' arrogance." Do you have any suggestions for how to do this? I disagree with the writer regarding childrens' names, so I'm not asking for advice related to that specific scenario, but more generally, when I think I'm right, but I also fully recognize that my position is one that people differ on. For example, I have strong feelings about women automatically taking their husband's last name at marriage, or spending a gazillion $ on engagement/wedding rings and then complaining that one cannot afford a down payment, or not recycling, or not composting in areas that have composting, or buying plastic again and again instead of just purchasing one reusable water bottle, or "gender"/sex reveal parties, or insisting that girls wear pink and boys wear blue, or saying "my (male) child did X -- you have a [female child]. do you think X is a "boy" thing, or does your child do it too?" or handing over one's cell phone to an infant who is otherwise just curiously looking around and not displaying a need for distraction. The one scenario where I can be objective is on the subway -- I recognize that my privilege allows me to act and know things that aren't available to everyone. But when my equally privileged friends behave in ways that seem insane to me, I have a hard time not getting worked up about it. Even though I don't WANT to be arrogant. (I think they definitely see me as arrogant.) I sometimes remind myself of Amy Poehler's statement: "good for her, not for me," but I'm having a hard time internalizing this sentiment. You've shared so many really excellent new ways of thinking about things that I'm hoping you'll come through again. How can I disabuse myself of my feelings that I know better than other people when I know, logically, that there's more than one way to do things, but I cannot shake the feeling that, nonetheless, my way is better, even though I know that my way probably wouldn't work for everyone.

Whew! Okay.

For the subway, I recommend a good book. On audio if you get motion sickness.

For everyone/thing else, try this. 

We are all imperfect. In fact, we humans are all basically terrible in one way or another, sometimes in a bunch of ways, sometimes in ways that are ridiculously easy to fix but we just don't bother to, some of us more than others.

So that's our baseline. 

We also all choose our people. Some of them we acquire through circumstance (family, classmates, neighbors) and others more through free will, but still all of them involve a decision at some point about how much of our time and energy we care to invest in any given person.

So what makes sense to me as an answer to your question is a two-step process. First, have a good reckoning with all the ways you're terrible. Fight the urge to cast yourself as the hero in all your stories, and figure out times you've been the bad guy. They're there. We've all got them. See clearly what nuisances you bring to the table. Besides "being right all the time," ha.

Then, when you're feeling fully possessed of a realistic self-assessment, choose your people based on how well you match up on the terrible scale. So, basically, you've got Flaw A, B and C, by your assessment, and the other person has X, Y and Z, of similar magnitude, and that's someone who can probably make a good friend who doesn't get you feeling all judgy. Right? X might bug you, but then you remind yourself that you're B, and you move on.

Spending time with someone, on the other hand, who has Flaws K through Z, and Q happens to be "throws plastic bottles out of the car because it's just a highway," is going to involve an unending battle with your inner feelings of superiority, and probably therefore is not a good candidate to remain your friend. 

This is just a spelled out version of the math we all do, mostly subconsciously: try to find people we both like and respect and whose values generally align with our own on the most important things, and avoid spending any more time with idiots than we have to.

But sometimes it can help to break things down.

Here's my take: Dad, stop trying to referee their discussions and telling them to let things go. When you tell them to "let things go" you are diminishing things that are clearly important to them that they want to discuss with one another, and it's patronizing. If it's their conversation and you weren't invited into it, stay out of it--your opinion on every little thing is not needed. If their conversation is grating on you, leave the room or put on headphones.

And if he dumps her for telling then what responsibility is she going to place on her sister for encouraging telling? She has to get to that decision on her own.

If she places any responsibility on her sister for a decision she makes of her own accord, then she's in serious need of growing up. 

I think it's rich to say "they're shaming me for sticking to my traditions" when you're literally shaming them for theirs, saying that having catered food is "putting on airs."

Secrets prevent intimacy. I was married for 20 years before I told my husband I had been raped as a teen. Until then, he didn't really know who I was. Nothing terrible happened, except that he knows all of me now (pretty scary!).

Yes, yes, right.

And I'm sorry, and I admire your courage, and good for your husband.

I'm in the same boat, my mother thinks buying nearly 100 gifts per child for Christmas is okay, even though we are already overflowing. She sends monthly packages with cheap toys and always has gifts when we visit monthly. Birthdays are another free for all for all the kids, because you couldn't just buy the birthday kid gifts. When we ask for a few number of higher quality toys she scoffs. I've always been under the impression I need to graciously accept these gifts. Your last answer hinted at something I hadn't considered - she's being rude by overloading us with gifts. It's self-serving, isn't it? Just wanted to say it makes me feel better to think that my husband and I are not being ungrateful and have some justification for the complaining we do to each other about the cheap toy overload. Now any advice on how to convince a 4 year old to donate old toys? Whenever we go through them they are all his favorite!

It is rude and self-serving, and undermines you as parents.

Intercept all of the monthly packages before you child sees them, then donate contents; allow the monthly in-person gifts, and watch for waning interest; skim off a -lot- of the Xmas pile before any of it really registers with him.

Here's how you donate without triggering the want-everythings:

1. Have a limited number of toys out for use.

2. Store the rest.

3. Donate things out of storage that he never really played with and that go unmissed for several months.

4. The ones he does miss or loved at some point, put back into the rotation by replacing some of the ones he isn't using much lately.

5. Store those and repeat cycle.

Eventually you will want to include him more and more in the donation act, to help him think generously, but it's okay when he's little to run most of that operation from behind a curtain.

Saw your question over at Dear Prudence also, so I can tell this is very distressing to you. Both Carolyn and Danny have essentially provided the same insight so I think it merits serious consideration: your friend may be struggling with something. Get to the root of why this is so important to her. I'm also recently married with no children and have a mom friend - she isn't as persistent as yours, but it did come out that she was a bit wistful of her life before kids. Not that she doesn't love hers, but she admitted she was having trouble reclaiming her identity outside of being a mom and felt like if I was on the same page she wouldn't feel so alone (she's the first in our close friend group to have children and so far the only).

"Not comfortable with day care" = "Let's save money by guilting Grandma into babysitting for free."

There's that. Day care bias is real though--have you heard comments about paying people to raise one's children?

'Now my son says I'm playing favorites “just like I always did”' She omits to say whether this is true, doesn't she?

If it is true, though, then this is not the way to work it out! Leveraging it for free child care? Just, no. The adult approach is: "I thought I was okay with this, but I am struggling with some old feelings that I'd like to talk to you about." And then an explanation of those feelings, with factually anchored examples. 

And if the mom thinks he has a point now, there's the truth: "I did favor your sister, and I'm sorry for that. You deserved better." Or: "I realize I gave you reason to believe I favored your sister. I didn't mean to do that, and have always loved you as much as I loved her, just in a different way. I wish I had noticed the unfairness back then." Or similar.


Carolyn said "You are not doling out two equal stacks of child-care years to each of your children; you are giving out equal responsiveness to wants, needs and emergencies. Should your son and his wife ever have a need or emergency of similar magnitude, you will be the first to show up to help." No! You don't have to be the first in line to show up to help. You don't even need to be equally responsive to wants/needs/emergencies! Your son is an adult, and his life is his responsibility. You help if you want to and can, not because you feel guilty because you responded differently to someone else in a different moment!

Yes, you're right. I was addressing it as an issue of her determining what was fair, but of course there is no obligation here and i didn't mean to imply one. Thanks!

Taking care of the 16 year old's baby may not have been favoring the sister but maybe brother felt that way in other circumstances throughout his youth. May be an underlying cause there that is worth exploring

I am a professor and also the graduate coordinator, and I urge students not to go directly to graduate school right away. Often they are not sure of the degree that will help them advance in a field that they wish to pursue, and often without any experience they are over-credentialed; employers would prefer the undergrad graduate that they can train.

Sounds right, thanks. Life-seasoned students just do better. 

It's so logical that it sounds to me as if the mom just wanted her nest to stay empty.

That's it for me. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend and type to you here next week. 

In This Chat
Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.
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