Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

13 Common Phrases to Let You Know Your Child Is Being Passive Aggressive

Does your child have a passive aggressive vocabulary?

Is your child a foot stomper? Does he scream and shout when he is feeling angry or is he more likely to withdraw and pout? Kids express their anger through a wide range of actions-some more overt than others. Children who tend toward indirect anger expression use passive aggressive strategies to communicate their feelings.

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger and involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without that person recognizing the underlying anger (Long, Long & Whitson). Do you recognize any of these passive aggressive phrases in your child's anger vocabulary?

I'll Do It Right After This Show
Procrastination, postponement, and stalling are three of the most common passive aggressive tactics. When a child verbally complies with a request, but behaviorally delays its completion, his temporary compliance frustrates adults. Other red flag phrases include:

  • I'm coming
  • Be there in a minute
  • I'll do it right after school
  • I will, but I have to go to the bathroom first

I Didn't Hear You
When a child is angry with an adult or annoyed by a request, a typical passive aggressive strategy is to pretend not to hear (or see, or remember) and to fail to respond. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I couldn't find my pen, so I didn't finish my homework
  • I forgot all about the laundry in the dryer. Maybe you should leave me a note next time.
  • I couldn't hear you. I had my headphones on. What did you ask again?

You Just Want Everything to Be Perfect
When stalling and "forgetting" will no longer cut it, some children choose to express anger toward an adult by complying with requests, but carrying them out in unacceptable ways:

  • I took the laundry out of the dryer like you asked. I didn't know you wanted it folded.
  • I tried to unload the dishwasher like you asked, but I didn't know where the plates went, so I left them on the counter
  • I did all of my homework. It's not my fault that you can't read my writing

When the adult objects to the quality of the work, the passive aggressive child plays up his role as victim of unreachable standards, frustrating the adult even more.

If you recognize some of these passive aggressive phrases in your child, don't panic! Most people use passive aggressive behaviors here and there, as a "socially acceptable" way of avoiding tasks and frustrating others. Parents who role model assertive anger expression and practice direct communication of feelings can teach their children effective ways to express emotions. If you notice that your child expresses anger indirectly across most situations and seems to fear communicating anger directly, he may benefit from more focused support and professional intervention.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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