What is your favourite mother-in-law joke? Most of us have at least one up our sleeve. Mine is: ‘My mother-in-law and I were happy for 20 years. Then we met.’ Joking apart, mothers-in-law do have a bad reputation, but is it justified?

Why are they the butt of so many jokes? Is their caring nature misinterpreted for interfering? Do they come across as controlling when, in fact, they are simply trying to help? How can you tell if you have a genuinely caring or a toxic mother-in-law?   

Here are 8 signs your mother-in-law might be toxic:

8 signs of a toxic mother-in-law  

1. She’s always around  

Sometimes you just wish you could have a day without your mother-in-law gatecrashing or popping in unannounced. Wherever you turn, she’s there. You have no privacy or opportunities for a private life because she’s always around.

Sure, she’ll make herself look as if she’s helping or that you cannot do without her. Maybe you asked her to babysit once. Now she’s taken this as a hint you want her there every bedtime and you can’t get rid of her.   

2. She gives advice whether you want it or not  

Do any of the following sound familiar; ‘What you should have done is…’, ‘If I were you’, ‘If you want my advice’, ‘What I would have done is…’? Even if you are retelling a story with a good outcome, she’ll still butt in and give you her advice. She’s not interested in how you solved the problem. She wants to come across as knowledgeable and helpful.   

3. She treats your partner like a child  

A parent’s job is to raise their children to be independent so they can leave home and set up their own families. Does your mother-in-law still fuss around your partner like a child? Do they cook and do their laundry still? Perhaps she goes over the top with praise for something as normal as washing the dishes?

Basically, she doesn’t treat them as adults. And worse of all, she implies that you are not looking after their needs as well as she does.   

4. She lets you know that you are not good enough  

No one would be good enough for this toxic mother-in-law, but you just take the biscuit. Of all the people her precious child could have married, they chose you, and she’s not happy about it.

One way she’ll let you know you are not good enough is to go on about ex-boyfriends or girlfriends. She will big them up in your presence or fill her child in on their whereabouts and how they are doing. She may even suggest that your partner calls them.  

5. She is jealous of your relationship  

As well as thinking you are not good enough, your mother-in-law will demand your partner’s time and energy. She is top of their list of priorities. Your partner will be split between making sure their mother is happy or tending to their own family problems.

And if they choose you over her, she’ll act like a wounded animal. That, or she’ll be quick to tell you how much she sacrificed for her child; whether it’s her career, her looks, or marriage. She will guilt-trip your partner into spending time with her.   

6. She has no boundaries  

Does your mother-in-law breeze into your house without an invitation? Does she have set views about schools for your kids? Has she ever cut your children’s hair or thrown away items of clothing she didn’t like? Does she give your children treats when you have asked her not to? Does she think she runs your family and that your opinions don’t matter? A toxic mother-in-law will always think she knows best.   

7. She criticises how you raise your children  

Of all the toxic mother-in-law signs, how you raise your children will be a huge issue for her. She will criticise everything from what your children wear, what they watch on TV, to what they eat for school lunch. You won’t find one thing that she approves of concerning your kids. Even if you start adapting to her suggestions, she’ll still remind you what a bad job you were doing before she came along.   

8. She has to be the centre of attention  

Do you dread family gatherings because you know your mother-in-law wants everything to revolve around her? It doesn’t matter whether it’s your child’s birthday or your wedding anniversary; she has to be centre stage. The event has to cater to her needs, whether it’s food or travelling time. She’ll expect to be made a fuss of and to be treated like royalty.   

What to do with a toxic mother-in-law?  

The problem with a toxic mother-in-law is that she is family, and you can’t simply avoid her. There are things you can do, however.  

  • Set rules and boundaries and be firm about them  

Your mother-in-law has no right to interfere with how you bring your children up. You can have your own household rules and be firm about them. This means everyone who enters your house knows the rules, such as no sweets before bedtime, or no playing video games until homework is completed.

Put these rules up on a board if the message is not getting across, but make sure everyone knows.   

  • Try and understand where her toxicity comes from  

Most people who interfere or interject themselves into others’ lives do so because they are lonely or want to be needed. Is your mother-in-law on her own? Does she have much of a social life? Could you include her regularly so that she feels important again? Perhaps you could invite her to Sunday lunch and ask that she brings a dessert? Maybe you could let her babysit the kids so you can have a date night?   

  • Identity your trigger points

Sometimes a sore point can allude to something about ourselves that we would rather not admit. For example, if your house is untidy and you feel a little guilty, you will react strongly when your mother-in-law criticises you. Maybe you’ve never been a good cook and you dread putting a home-cooked meal in front of your mother-in-law?

Why not admit you need help with the housework or cooking? Or, if you can’t do that, at least recognising your trigger points may highlight something you need to work on.   

  • Let your actions speak louder than words  

I had a toxic mother-in-law once. She wouldn’t call me by my name; she referred to me as ‘the girlfriend’, as in ‘Would the girlfriend like a drink?’ Over time, I won her over. She could see that I loved after her son and looked after his children and although at times it was exhausting, after a year or so she became my biggest ally.

So, don’t give up hope, there may be reasons why your mother-in-law is toxic, and they may have nothing to do with you. You know you are a good person, a good partner, and a good parent. The people that matter can already see this.

Final thoughts  

We all want to be liked, so it is difficult when we don’t get on with a close family member. Understanding why your mother-in-law is toxic may go some way to helping the family dynamics. I find that being patient and killing with kindness works, especially if you don’t want to or can’t cut this person out of your life.   


  1. greatergood.berkeley.edu
  2. researchgate.net

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