The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Keeping a manipulator at a distance; setting an agenda for therapy


Dear Carolyn:

I grew up with a mother who was profoundly manipulative, volatile and mean-spirited. My siblings and I all have anxiety disorders for which we have sought counseling. I have distanced myself from my mother and have a happy life with my husband and 4-year-old daughter.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I have begun allowing my mother limited contact with my daughter out of my mother’s desire to have a relationship with her. I am comfortable with where the boundaries currently are, but my mother is not. She continually pushes to have my daughter for weekend visits (she lives several hours away).

I do not believe she would overtly harm my daughter, but she can fly off the handle when upset and has very different ideas than I do about what is acceptable behavior from a ­4-year-old.

My family seems to think I am being unreasonable to hold my mother at such distance. My sister has no personal relationship with her but does allow her to babysit her children. Am I wrong not to allow weekend visits, or am I being realistic?

Anxious Mother

If this is multiple-choice, then I need more choices. Like this:

“I refuse to leave my daughter with my mother unsupervised because I am (a) wrong; (b) realistic; (c) not out of my therapeutically reconstructed mind.”

I’m going with (c).

I can’t know what your sister is thinking, and have the sense not to pass underinformed judgment on the way people raise their kids, but I will spend part of today wondering how a parent too toxic for adults can be safe for kids.

You’ve mulled this yourself, apparently, and come up empty. Trust that. Don’t be sucked in by a manipulative family that has damaged your own mental health. If anything, recognize that you’re within their gravitational field and take a corrective step back.

Mom’s pressuring you? So what. You’re a mother, too, one who knows the harm “profoundly manipulative, volatile and mean-spirited” people can do. Protect your cub. Be fierce.

Dear Carolyn:

In the Feb. 1 chat, you said it’s helpful for a teen to talk to someone who “doesn’t have an agenda.” My 12-year-old stepdaughter has witnessed a lot of violence against her mother while at her mom’s house, so her dad has her in counseling with a highly recommended therapist she seems to like.

However, recently my stepdaughter has made comments that she doesn’t like some of the things the therapist suggests — that perhaps there are better ways to handle things than violence, and perhaps my stepdaughter does get angry about things.

The therapist appears to be a consummate professional. But now I’m worried my stepdaughter will think her therapist has an agenda or is biased against Mom. Do I try to help her see the therapist is unbiased, or do I just stay out of it? She needs a third party she can trust.


Please encourage your stepdaughter to express her concerns to the therapist directly. It’ll be good practice for her in standing up for herself and setting the agenda for her own care (something she’ll have to do with doctors and other caregivers throughout her life). It will also give the therapist, if s/he’s a good one, a chance to address these concerns openly, thereby building or affirming mutual trust.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Is fencing the answer to brain health?
Miss Manners: The technology's changed, but the rules are the same
Behind a famous and fast steam locomotive
Play Videos
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
How to survive a shark attack
What you need to know about trans fats
Play Videos
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Riding the X2 with D.C.'s most famous rapper
Play Videos
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.