You go to pick up your grandkids, as planned, and your DIL’s left a note saying they’re running errands and will be home soonish. You wait, wait, wait. This happens all the time. It’s enough to make you pull out your hair. Or hers!

With a passive-aggressive DIL, such lapses are the norm, not the exception. She regularly sabotages plans—she’s late, she makes excuses at the last minute , she “forgets” to mention that the kids are starring in an upcoming school production, she rarely expresses appreciation. And yet on the surface, everything is just “fine.” But clearly, it’s not. What’s a MIL to do with this crazy-making behavior?

“It’s one of the hardest behaviors to deal with,“ says Deanna Brann, Ph.D, author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law. “People who are passive-aggressive never felt safe enough in childhood to stand up for themselves, so they learned how to cope with feelings of powerlessness by saying what someone wants to hear (“yes,” “sure,” “ fine”) and then doing everything to sabotage it.” Unless the person learns a more constructive way to assert themself, this is the behavior they know. And it throws everyone around them into chaos.

Before you can deal with her, you need to understand her.

Dr. Brann explains the following to give insight:

  • You are NOT the only target of her behavior—though it may certainly feel that way. Chances are she behaves this way with your son, her kids, her friends—in any situation where she feels powerless. But, in her mind, who is more powerful that the mother of the man she married? That would be you. Still, that doesn’t make this personal—it’s simply a go-to way of coping.
  • Her perception of your power is flawed. Ironically, in this little power struggle, she sees you as the Queen Bee. After all, you knew her husband first. That’s why she pushes back. But you, as the more mature one, know that she holds the keys to the kingdom—your son and grandkids. And you should also know—even if she doesn’t– that if you put your son in the middle, the chances are he’ll defend his wife and kids. Not you.
  • Her behavior will be predictable. You can see patterns emerge that always happen.

Dr. Brann suggest that passive-aggressive behavior manifests in a few obvious patterns: Passive-aggressive people tend to “forget” things—like the plans they agreed to with you, like thanking you for the nice birthday gift, like telling you about the grandkids’ latest achievement. And they ‘re great with reasons: ”Oh, I thought your son told you about the kids,” or “I didn’t see our lunch date on my calendar.” 

Besides being forgetful, they are also great saboteurs. They show up late or they call last minute and cancel due to something that just popped up. Or they change the plan so that it’s no longer convenient or fun. They tell you last-minute about a program for the kids so that you may not be able to make it. (And it’s not like you can say to the kids, “I’m so sorry I missed your program. Your mommy didn’t tell me until an hour before.” If you do, you’ll look bad, not your DIL.)

Finally, passive-aggressive people have perfected the disappearing act. You show up at their house (a planned visit) and she stays in her room, ”working” on a project. Or you show up and she suddenly has to run errands. What did you do to warrant such behavior? Who knows? She could be mad at your son and taking it out on the woman who raised him.

Now comes the hard part—dealing with the behavior. Dr. Brann suggests the following:

• While it’s happening, don’t show anger. It’ll only fuel the fire. You may be 100 percent justified to feel furious, but so what? This isn’t about being right; it’s about not making a bad situation worse. Bite your tongue and practice patience till the situation passes.

• Afterwards, be confused. If you missed a get-together because you were told a different time or you heard about the kids’ recitals after the fact, say, “I’m confused. Did I get the time wrong?” or “I feel terrible about missing the recital. Did you or my son send an email? Or did you tell Dad and maybe he forgot to tell me?” Don’t be accusative, just confused.

• Empower your DIL by sending “appreciation” notes. We’re not suggesting you kiss up to her, but you can show her she’s okay by sending notes periodically that mention what she does well—she makes your son his favorite pizza, she dresses the kid so stylishly. You get the drift. It’ll make her feel valued.

• Incentivize her problem solving. If she regularly mucks up your plans with the kids, say, “ I know the family is really busy but I’m wondering if you can help me find some time when I might be able to see the kids each week. Maybe I can do soccer pick up and help you have some extra time.” Then let her talk and follow her head.

• Finally, follow her rules. Whether you agree or disagree with her, show her you heard her and will do as she wishes. If she wants both kids strapped in the back seat even though you think the older one could be in front, put them both in the back. Nothing suggests passive aggressive  behavior more than a MIL who disregards the rules.