Mother-in-Law Whisperer

August 23, 2009, 6:17 pm

This article appears in,, Chic Mom Magazine,, Metroplex Baby, etc.

5 Ways to Become a Mother-in-Law Whisperer
By Jenna D. Barry

I’m a huge fan of the show “Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Millan; it’s not unusual for me to sit and watch four episodes in a row. Recently, during one of my Dog Whisperer TV marathons, I realized that many of the techniques Cesar uses to train dog owners can also be used to train daughters-in-law.

Dog owners turn to Cesar for help whenever their pooch exhibits behavior problems. He listens patiently to frustrated people as they describe their beloved beagle who bites or their four pound Chihuahua who taunts pit bulls. Then he watches as they let their mutts barge past them into the house, jump onto the couch, and eat food off of the kitchen counters. With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he tactfully explains the importance of behaving as a pack leader. He encourages people to be “calm and assertive” in order to have a dog that is “calm and submissive.”

Daughters-in-law turn to me for help whenever their mother-in-law displays destructive behavior such as being manipulative, intrusive, controlling, etc. They describe incidents in which their mother-in-law showed up at their house uninvited, criticized their parenting skills, or gossiped behind their back. I encourage these women to behave as a confident adult on an equal level to their mother-in-law. In other words, I encourage them to be “calm and assertive” in order to have a more respectful mother-in-law. (Disclaimer: I don’t mean to imply that all mothers-in-law have destructive behavior, nor that mothers-in-law are on the same status level as dogs.)

Whether you are an overwhelmed dog owner or a discouraged daughter-in-law, here are some tips you may find useful:

1. Realize that you don’t have to let others boss you around. On Cesar’s website, it says “practice unwavering leadership every day” and “the pack leader doesn’t look to the dogs to affirm his position.” Likewise, you must behave with confidence (but not arrogance) around your mother-in-law. Don’t look to her for approval on the way you eat, dress, spend your money, raise your kids, clean your house, etc.

2. Anticipate success and draw strength from that optimism. Cesar advises pet owners to “imagine a successful scenario and hold it in your mind when dealing with your dog.” His website teaches, “Dogs pick up on feelings of fear, doubt, or worry — and they will move to fill them by attempting to become dominant.” If you behave as an insecure child around your mother-in-law, then you are extending an invitation for her to dominate you. Visualize a healthier relationship with your mother-in-law, and then behave in a way to achieve that.

3. Draw boundaries; set limits; claim your space. Cesar teaches owners not to let their dogs enter the house or jump on the couch unless invited. Sometimes he uses a muzzle to protect everyone in case an aggressive dog doesn’t respect the new rules. If you ask your mother-in-law to keep her phone calls before 10pm and she refuses to adhere to that boundary, then you can “protect” yourself from her disrespectful behavior by turning off the ringer or letting the answering machine get it. I don’t recommend putting a muzzle on your mother-in-law (but if you do try that, please send me a picture).

4. Be consistent in correcting destructive behaviors. Whenever a dog tries to dominate a situation, Cesar says, “Chhh!” and touches the mutt in a way that simulates how a canine pack leader bites to create submission. Again, I don’t recommend that you try this on your mother-in-law (but if you do, I’d love to see a video of it). Whenever your mother-in-law tries to dominate by criticizing you or manipulating you with guilt, respond with prepared statements such as “You’re entitled to your opinion, but this isn’t your decision” or “I’m not willing to discuss this with you.”

5. Stand your ground. If a dog tries to test the limits you’ve set for him, it’s important to keep administering corrections until you’ve established dominance. In the same way, it’s important that you don’t back down if your mother-in-law challenges one of your (reasonable) boundaries. If you let her convince you that she shouldn’t have to respect your boundaries because “we’re family” or “I’m just trying to help,” then you are communicating that your boundaries should never be taken seriously. If your mother-in-law has a negative reaction when you set a boundary with her, say “I’m sorry you’re upset, but this isn’t up for negotiation.”

By changing your own behavior, you can have a strong influence on the behavior of those around you. Cesar teaches that “the energy you’re projecting internally is the message you’re sending to your dog.” Similarly, if you believe your mother-in-law’s needs, feelings, and opinions are superior to yours, then she may sense your lack of confidence and take advantage of that.

One woman observed that what Cesar advises– having a mindset of being a calm, assertive pack leader– is “so simple, and yet very difficult to apply.” It may not be easy, but it’s certainly worth the effort. It is incredibly rewarding to watch the special bond that develops between a strong pack leader and a rehabilitated dog. And I can tell you from personal experience that it is very liberating to get out of the victim role and behave as a confident daughter-in-law.

Jenna D. Barry is the author of “A Wife’s Guide to In-laws:  How to Gain Your Husband’s Loyalty Without Killing His Parents.” For more information, please visit

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You may be quick to blame your in-laws for your marriage problems, but in reality the biggest part of the problem isn't your in-laws, it's your husband's loyalty to them.  When a man marries, he is supposed to transfer his loyalty from his parents to his wife. His behavior plays a key role in how well you get along with his parents.  The goal of this book is to help you gain your husband's loyalty.

If you are in need of hope and encouragement, this book is for you!  Jenna Barry offers hilarious, heartfelt advice about how to have a terrific marriage in spite of difficult in-laws.  As a wife who has personally experienced the despair that comes from having an unsupportive partner, she suggests specific things to say and do to gain your husband's loyalty.  This book won't teach you how to become best friends with your in-laws, but it will teach you how to think and behave in a new way so they no longer have any power over you.  A Wife's Guide to In-laws has over 40 cartoons, two fun chapters written just for your hubby, and worksheets to help the two of you reach loving compromises about common problem issues.

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About Jenna

As a wife of 22 years, Jenna D. Barry (a pen name) has learned how to gain her husband's loyalty through communication, persistence, and a whole lot of love.  She has familiarized herself with the needs and frustrations of other wives by participating in on-line in-law support groups and by talking to marriage therapists, friends, family, and co-workers.


Jenna is the author of the book, A Wife's Guide to In-laws:  How to Gain Your Husband's Loyalty Without Killing His Parents. She has been a radio guest on The Mike Bullard Show and her articles have been published in newspapers, websites, and magazines worldwide.  She writes monthly articles for Hitched Magazine and has been quoted in The Washington Times,, The London Free Press,, etc. She leads a support group for daughters-in-law right here.



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