Caroline West-Meads: ‘Why can’t she hold down a job?’

Ask Caroline

Q. My lovely niece has no qualifications and has been fired from virtually every job, including factory work, offices and catering. She is 24 and has always been anxious compared with her siblings. Her younger sister is on the gifted spectrum, took all her exams early, went to university at 16 and now has a high-flying career aged only 19. Their brother has found his niche in the army. My niece clearly feels very inadequate and things have not been helped by her mother – my sister-in-law – constantly bragging about her brainy daughter. This has driven a wedge between the siblings, and the youngest daughter has become very arrogant. My niece’s problems worsened when she lost her father – my twin brother – when she was 16. He had a heart attack one morning while driving her to an art class. She was so traumatised that she ended up on antidepressants. Now she says she’s a failure and will never amount to anything. She does have a talent for arts and crafts, but her mother always says that these are not proper jobs. I have tried to explain to my sister-in-law that I have run a successful hairdressing and beauty business despite having no qualifications and that my two sons both earn good money in trades. Will my niece always struggle? Are there people who are unable to keep jobs? This is really worrying me because I have a soft spot for her.

A. Firstly, I am so sorry for the loss of your twin brother. This must have been especially devastating for your elder niece as she had to witness her father’s sudden death. It is not at all surprising that she had to take antidepressants, and that her anxiety has worsened. She could well be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which could be affecting her ability to settle at work. There is another possibility also that might be worth investigating. I wonder if your younger niece is on the autistic spectrum – this is sometimes associated with exceptional academic brilliance. This also might make it likely that your elder niece has elements of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because siblings can often have related conditions. Unfortunately, as you say, the situation is not helped by her mother, who sounds very pushy. I suspect your brother was more of his elder daughter’s champion, encouraging her natural abilities. So, of course, your niece has lost this support, too. It is a great shame that your sister-in-law doesn’t appear to recognise her daughter’s needs when clearly your niece requires more help. Could you pay for a psychiatric diagnosis for PTSD and other causes of her anxiety? (NHS waiting lists are sadly lengthy for mental health.) Try With targeted support for her anxiety and low self-esteem, she can hopefully start to follow her own successful path.

‘He controls every aspect of my life’

Q. My husband has stopped me seeing my friends and won’t let anyone come round. Two years ago my uncle died and left me some money, but my husband made me put it in a joint account. So now if I want anything, he comes to the bank with me and tells me how much to take out. We have a son, but he lives abroad and I don’t want him to know what is happening. The problem is I have no one to turn to because I have no close friends or family left to talk to. I’m too old to pack up and go, but I don’t know what to do.

A. Ideally, you should go to the bank alone as soon as possible and move the money into a separate account, perhaps even with a different bank. I suspect that you might be afraid to do that because your husband is so controlling. In fact, his behaviour is known as coercive control, which is illegal. This means that even if no physical abuse takes place, he tries to control every aspect of your life – such as who you see, where you go or your finances. Gradually cutting you off from your friends and family so that you have no one to turn to in your unhappiness is a classic sign, as is controlling what you spend. I know you don’t want to upset your son, but as long as you trust him to support you, please find the courage to tell him. I am sure that he would want to help you. You say that you are too old to pack up and go, which suggests that leaving is actually what you would like to do if you were not afraid. Even if you are not considering leaving him, please contact for more advice and support.