Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Passive Aggression: A Most Satisfying Type of Rebellion

Youngsters rebel successfuly, using passive aggressive behavior

This Passive Aggressive Diaries blog posting is Part Two of the four-part series on why individuals behave passive aggressively. In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, 2nd edition, we identify these primary triggers of passive aggression:

1. Situational response to adult demands
2. Developmental stage
3. Characteristic of a cultural norm or ethnic group
4. A way of life

In the previous Passive Aggressive Diaires blog post, I described passive aggression as a situational response to everyday requests by an adult or other authority figure. Here, I will describe passive aggressive behavior as a normative part of child and adolescent development.

As a reminder, in this series of blog postings about the four reasons why people behave passive aggressively, I make a critical distinction between the first three reasons, which represent passive aggressive behaviors chosen by individuals to achieve specific ends, and the final reason, which is indicative of a pathological and pervasive passive aggressive personality style.


Most kids go through predictable stages of passive-aggressive behavior at home by targeting their parents. What some parents describe as the stubborn, irresponsible, lazy, forgetful, or irritating behavior of their adolescent (or even their pre-schooler) may be nothing more than a thinly disguised layer of passive-aggressive behavior.

Developmentally, a typical 16-year-old has achieved close to 100% of his height, intellectual potential, and sexuality but only about 20% of his economic and personal freedom. Conflict occurs when the adolescent's desire to be independent of adult control and supervision runs counter to the realities of his place in life. The adolescent still is dependent on his parents for most basic living needs such as room, food, clothing, transportation, education, and money.

Intertwined with these dependencies are almost endless sources of potential conflict between a typical adolescent and his parents. They may differ on issues such as the teen's appearance, study habits, choices in friends, dating rules, use of the family car, etc.

Whether they enjoy it or not, responsible parents often must interfere with their adolescent's immediate plans and pleasures by setting limits on behavior and providing natural consequences for acts of irresponsibility.

Given these developmental conditions, parent-adolescent conflict can be seen as a very normal--even healthy--reaction to the push-pull of ever-increasing adolescent independence moderated by protective adult limit-setting. As parents set standards and impose limits, they wield the manifest power in the familial relationship. The adolescent is often cast into a role of being subservient and compliant.

While many of the common issues listed above may be negotiated with little or no conflict, when emotionally-charged issues do evoke conflict, an adolescent's typical response is to become either openly rebellious or passive aggressive. Many adolescents, after testing the rebellion option, end up choosing to become passive aggressive at home. They find passive-aggressive behavior to be a more satisfying way of frustrating their parents. Their repertoire may include endless ways of procrastinating, forgetting, not hearing, and completing their chores at an unacceptable level of performance that drive their parents crazy:

I asked my 15-year old daughter to load the dishwasher. After asking her to do it several times, my voice growing louder and louder, she slowly moved to the dishwasher and began to load our dinner dishes--without removing the leftover food. I reminded her to scrape the food off first. She said, "OK," but continued to not scrape the dishes.

After several reminders, I couldn't stand it anymore. I angrily said, "Nevermind! I will do it myself!" She put down the dish and calmly replied, "Don't ever say I won't load the dishwasher."

It should be noted that younger children are perfectly capable of exhibiting a similar--albeit less sophisticated--array of passive aggressive behaviors. Like their adolescent counterparts who learn that passive aggression is more satisfying (and usually less likely to result in punishment) than overt aggression, children moving from toddlerhood into the pre-school years catch on to the fact that tantrums in the candy aisle will result in being whisked out of a store, but pretending not to hear mommy say "look but don't touch" can easily result in an "accidentally" unwrapped candy bar and subsequent chocolate purchase!

Fortunately, the pre-school and adolescent passive-aggression described here is representative of temporary and normative developmental behavior that usually exists within close familial relationships and not in other areas of the child's life. This passive aggressive does not represent the youngster's only way, or even their typical way, of responding to frustrating requests and situations. In other situations, these young people may choose to behave in a manner that is assertive, humorous, aggressive, regressed, dependent, or diplomatic.

Passive-aggressive behavior, as part of normative child and adolescent development, is a personal choice and not a habitual or predictable response to an authority figure. This kind of passive aggressive behavior is a function of the situation and the close relationship rather than an ingrained personality trait.

Please use the Comments section below to share your own examples of child and adolescent passive aggression. Visit back whenever new examples occur.

Stay tuned for my next posting on passive aggressive behavior as characteristic of a cultural norm or ethnic group.