Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Sister-in-Law Is Slowly Brainwashing Our Teen

My brother’s wife is nice to me, but I dislike the feeling that she’s speaking negatively behind my back and encouraging my daughter to do so as well.

A teen frowning and looking over her shoulder at a mom putting her palm on her forehead in exasperation
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by IL21/iStock/Getty Images Plus and SIphotography/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 15-year-old daughter “Becca” has grown very close with her aunt “Jae,” who married my brother about five years ago. Becca, as the oldest child, has always kind of been searching for a female mentor; Jae doesn’t have kids and was excited to step into the role. I encouraged this as I know it’s great for teens to have nonparental adults looking out for them and who can share some life wisdom. Becca has spent each summer with my brother and Jae for the past three or so years. At first, I wholeheartedly supported this—Becca learned to ride horses, pick berries, and experience a slower pace of life. However, Becca just got home from another visit and, well, I find myself feeling weird about it.

My brother and Jae are very into an “alternative” lifestyle (Eastern philosophy, folk healing, no odors/scents in the home, veganism, etc.). Becca has been super critical of our family since her visit last summer and it’s gotten even worse with this most recent visit. She’s made comments that we are fake, materialistic, destroying the Earth, and even “empty.” I don’t know how much of this is coming from her versus Jae. I know it’s healthy for teens to push boundaries (safely) and it’s important that she differentiate herself from us. But I don’t appreciate hearing these comments about my family, especially from my own daughter. I’ve heard from other family members that Jae has made these exact comments about our family to them. Jae is nice to me, but I dislike the feeling that she’s speaking negatively behind my back and encouraging my daughter to do so as well.

Last summer, Becca came home demanding that we start composting, and we happily did. I’m open to a variety of lifestyle changes. But am I overreacting when I say I’d prefer Becca take a break from the visits until I better understand what’s going on, and perhaps speak to Jae about it? If I do speak to Jae, what should I say? It’s so generous of her to host Becca but I do not want my daughter being brainwashed into hating her family of origin every summer. Do you have any advice?

—Materialistic Mom

Dear MM,

You need to speak to Jae. Let her know that you are happy for the relationship she and Becca have, that it means a lot to Becca, and that you support it wholeheartedly. Acknowledge that she and Becca have some values and interests that may be different from the ones you and your husband have. Be clear that while you are fine with your daughter having a space to explore those things, you also need for her to respect the home she is being raised in and the people who are raising her. Express your concerns about the comments that she’s made and ask that if there is anything Jae takes issue with in terms of how you operate in the world, she is mindful of how she communicates about those things with your daughter. Hopefully, she is reasonable enough to read between the lines and realize that she is compromising her ability to maintain this relationship.

As for Becca, let her know that you support and respect the bond she has with Jae and some of the shared values they have, but you expect that your own values, practices, and understanding of the world be shown the appropriate amount of respect. You should also mention that it isn’t appropriate for an adult to commiserate with a child, or to complain to a child about her parents, and that you feel that Jae may have crossed a line at some point, a line that must be respected so they can continue this mentorship. Also, if she wants to introduce some new lifestyle choices to the family such as composting, she must do that with love and respect, not condescension or annoyance that she has to be the one to teach you these things. Both of these conversations are likely to be a bit uncomfortable, but I think you can get to a place of peace here. Wishing you all the best.

—Jamilah