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Handling family member's insensitive comment

I am needing some feedback about a recent comment my mother-in-law made in my presence.  I am a 39-year-old man who struggles with inattentive ADD.  I was diagnosed 4 years ago and treat it with Adderall (40 mg/day) and cognitive behavioral therapy (though I need to see my therapist more often!).  My mother-in-law is one of the most preternaturally organized people I know and has little patience with those who aren’t.  You can see where I fit in so well with her (!). 

Anyway, my wife, kids and I were at her house recently.  My six-year-old daughter had wandered into la-la-land, as 6 year olds often do.  My mother-in-law was trying to get her attention and, in a moment of frustration, she said (I’m not joking):  “We don’t need another person in this family with ADD.”  Considering her personality, I didn’t think it was out of character for her.  It merely confirmed what I suspected she already thought.  However, I was too stunned and hurt to confront her about it.  I don’t think she realized how insulting and demeaning her comment was.  Yet, at the same time, I expect a family member who has known for 4 years I’ve been battling this to be more sensitive and understanding.  Frankly, if I had already been diagnosed with ADD when my wife and I were engaged and my (now) mother-in-law had made a similar ADD-related comment, I would have called the engagement off. 

I have yet to talk to my mother-in-law about her comment, but I need to soon- certainly before Christmas.  She didn’t apologize, and she isn’t someone who would.  Do you have any tips/suggestions for bringing this to her attention?  How have you dealt with insensitive comments from family members?


My advice is to consider her uninformed ignorance.  Even though it hurt to hear it from someone that is supposed to support you, Mother-In-Laws are notoriously judgemental and narrow minded.  There is a phrase that comes to mind you should consider before going into the holidays…“Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”  Think about that.  Your wife and daughter didn’t say the comment and it isn’t fair to them to suffer the inevitable pain of arguing and friction during the holiday.  I am sure that if your wife heard it, she feels really bad about it too.  But putting her in the middle will not be healthy for your relationship.  Also, saying that you would have called off the engagement is selfish and harsh to your wife, whom you love.  You married her, not your mother-in-law.  Be strong for your wife and daughter.  They both love you and understand your struggle.  You owe to yourself and to them to have a happy and safe holiday.

Posted by DocDetroit on Dec 05, 2012 at 9:32pm

If you can arrange a private chat with your mother in law and (this is critical) you think there is a chance she will listen with caring, then try and speak with her. If not, forget it. DocDetroit is right about keeping the others you love out of it.

My guess is that she is not going to suddenly become gracious and patient if she is not so now.

Posted by John Tucker, PhD, ACG. ADHD Coach on Dec 05, 2012 at 10:30pm

I agree with the posted response. Always consider your wife and children. Sometimes it is just better to overlook ignorance. Your mother-in-law is blissful in her ignorance. Let her be.

Posted by TM on Dec 05, 2012 at 10:30pm


I think your advice is wise.  My wife was as offended as I was and has been very supportive.  I don’t want to create a tense holiday.  I have gone back and forth on this and should have made the post more open-ended (i.e. is this something I should confront MIL about, and if so, how?). 

The harsh comment about breaking my engagement does sound awful.  To give you background, though, I have often felt I didn’t give adequate attention when I was engaged to the fact spouses DO marry the other spouse’s family, too.  Also, I didn’t pay attention to the fact my wife would have learned spousal behavior from her own mother.  While my wife is far more loving and affirming than my MIL, criticism does come much easier than verbal affirmation to her.  This has been a struggle in our marriage at times and particularly in dealing with ADD issues.  Both of us are firmly committed to our marriage and each other, so these are merely issues to address and not obstacles. 

In dealing with my MIL, I have NEVER confronted her about any comment she has made.  The comment I mention in my original post is merely the only ADD-related comment she has made that I found insensitive.  She is often harshly critical.  My default position (and only position) has always been to grin and bear it, and stay civil.  Which I could always do-  until this latest comment.  However, since my default position is to ignore her criticism, I can do so again.  Meanwhile, I have an appointment with my therapist next week anyway, so I can take it up there.

Posted by JayD on Dec 05, 2012 at 10:35pm

i would wait until after the holidays and write her a letter. i say write her because she has proved to be the kind of person that shows no empathy for others. so why look for it in her? you cant set yourself up for more insults and she is not the type that will admit being hurtful or can feel your pain. so dont look for that. talking to her in person will risk your self esteem because she is on the spot and may be defensive.  instead look to heal yourself. get what you have to say off your chest, this builds self esteem. you say what you need to say regardless of ” how ” it will be received. you are not worried about” if ” the other person gets it. or not, you are worried about burying your feelings and creating more pain and self hate within yourself. make the “I” statements, I feel… when you… in future please….

and that is it. it will be off your chest, you stood up for yourself and you may be protecting your daughter, who may be ADD we dont know. but those comments need to stop with you, so they dont get to her in the future if she has it.

good luck

Posted by cherryblossom on Dec 05, 2012 at 11:05pm

I would buy her a book about ADD so that she could better understand what she is dealing with. (probably by Sari Solden or Hallowell. Give it to her as a stocking stuffer anonymously, or better yet put it in the bathroom!

I would also probably also make the comment into a joke, a long lived one, perhaps complete with shirts that say ” You and Me and ADD”  or “Absolutely Delightful Dude! (ADD) for a family photo-op -She would of course be wearing one, or a sweatshirt, or an apron. Turn a negative into a positive. Having ADD is awesome!

Find a good comeback next time the one-liner hits. Something along the lines of, “That’s right, the awesomeness may be too much for you if there were two!” 
(It will save you from mentally having to knock her block off for being so rude and disrespectful.) It is obvious she is uneducated about ADD.

Posted by Laughsalot on Dec 06, 2012 at 12:24am

I’m fully with DocDetroit on this.
See, saying that comment is your ML responsibility. How you react to it is entirely yours.
I can almost guarantee you that she already forgot what she said, and her words are still hanging over your head.
People will say mean things all the time, it’s up to you to allow those things to affect you or not. Additionally, when your children see you being victimized (or offended) by other people’s comments, they’re learning that others have power over them and will grow being “offended” all the time.
You don’t need to educate someone that clearly has no intention of being educated, but you can learn how to react to these kind of things.

Best regards.

Posted by MikeG on Dec 06, 2012 at 12:43am

Why is everyone assumng that the MIL is ignorant of ADD ?

Maybe she is but the advice given presumes this as fact.

Posted by Laurie on Dec 06, 2012 at 7:17am

That is true. Perhaps she is just a mean spirited person. In which case you visualize a bubble around you, and all of her barbs bounce off of it so they can not hurt you, you are protected.

Posted by Laughsalot on Dec 06, 2012 at 7:41am

What is your wife’s advice on the best way to talk to her mother about a subject such as this?  Also, you don’t mention whether the comment upset your daughter, or just you. 

Regardless, it was a very insensitive remark, and I too find it hard if someone is being mean about my deficiencies.

I hope your therapist gives you helpful advice.

Please post what happens, or what you decide to do back here.  I’d love to know.  Best wishes!

Posted by ylt222 on Dec 06, 2012 at 12:50pm

I know it hurts, but consider this: “No one can make you feel bad without your consent.” by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Posted by Stache on Dec 06, 2012 at 2:39pm

consider the source. I get hypersensitive too about my issues especially when insensitive comments are made.  But, is she a healthy person?  Take pride in the fact that you are healthy and dealing with you stuff. I have people at my job who make insensitive hurtful comments, but then i realize that they are jealous of me cause I am a pretty healthy, happy person and they are not.  And that makes me not go there emotionally, not get upset I mean.  Did you ever think your step mom said the mean comment cause you took (in her mind) her daughter away?  Consider it from all angles, not just your own.  smile  And by all means, go to therapy and discuss this with your therapist.  smile

Posted by amaxfield on Dec 06, 2012 at 8:54pm

i know exactly how you feel i have a friend who once laughed at me when i was talking about having ADHD so i confronted her and explained that its a neurological condition in your brain that your born with and cant be helped its an actual disability ADHD is heredatory (dont know you spell it ) so your daughter could possibly have it herself i would have have a quite word if i was you let her know that you dont appreciate her snide remarks and that they hurt your feelings smile

Posted by hayles on Dec 07, 2012 at 7:27am

I really like what DocDetroit said. I also understand your need to draw healthy boundaries. The thing that would concern me deeply is the affect the disparaging comments about me would have on my child. And what if your child is ADD? How do grandma’s comments affect her? Granted these concerns, I think you DO need to do something, but what?

First, keep in mind that as people age they lose executive function and, sometimes, the ability to filter what they say. With my often inappropriate dad (who is now 82), I sometimes simply repeat what he said. Or, I might say something like, “wow, did you really just say that out loud” or “why would you say such a thing?”  This makes him more mindful of what he is saying. And if he doesn’t respond, what do I do? I escalate—but prudently. Let me explain. I am very blessed in that I have deeply loyal and intelligent children. Whenever my parents have tried to win them over against me, my kids have rallied to my cause. In short, if my folks disparage me, they end up looking bad in the eyes of my kids. To escalate, then, all that I have to say is, “Look, dad, if you keep talking that way, the kids are going to think you’re going senile.” You can even say this as if you intend it somewhat jokingly. And if this fails, then what? Then I have “the talk” with my dad. I tell him about his behavior affected me when I grew up and I tell him that I don’t want that for my kids. I keep it very short and simple. Fortunately, my dad, although sometimes insensitive and inappropriate, is a good man who wants to be loved and respected.

In any case, here is what you want to avoid. First, this is a simple issue of respect, and so the last thing you need is a long and drawn out discussion or letter. Personally, you couldn’t care less about your mother-in-law’s ignorant opinions; so remember, you just want to change behavior. Focus on the behavior. Second, don’t make this into a war of egos. Don’t set yourself against your mother-in-law. Rather, cast the situation in a cause-and-effect context: “Norma, if you run me down in front of my kids, it’ll just hurt them and you. Is this what you want? How do you expect me to respond when you disparage me?” I also think you need to avoid casting yourself as a victim. The “this hurts my feelings” approach may not work with someone who essentially unsympathetic.

So what could you have said? How about, “You’re grandmother is right, and I am sure she will also agree that what this family needs is people who respect and love one another unconditionally.”

Posted by LCP on Dec 13, 2012 at 12:35am

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