Understanding Passive Aggressive Behavior

A guide for parents and professionals unmasking the angry smile.

Posted Oct 18, 2016

Through my work as a child and adolescent therapist and a school counselor, I have seen how destructive of a force anger can be—both when it is expressed in uncontrolled, aggressive ways, but also when it is acted out in highly controlled but hidden behaviors, such as passive-aggression.  Passive aggressive behavior as a deliberate but covert way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009) and is most often motivated by a person’s fear of expressing anger directly. The passive-aggressive person believes life will only get worse if other people know of his anger, so he expresses his feelings indirectly, using a variety of behaviors to subtly “get back” at another person.  While anger itself is generally experienced as an uncomfortable emotion, the passive-aggressive person derives genuine pleasure out of frustrating others, hence our label of the behavior as “the angry smile.” 

If your interactions with a child, a parent, a teacher, a student, a spouse, a co-worker, a boss, or even an online acquaintance leave you feeling like you have been on an emotional roller coaster, chances are good you may be dealing with a passive aggressive person.  Some of the most common red flags of this behavior include things like:

  • Withdrawing and sulking, rather than stating opinions or needs.
  • Using words like “Fine” and “Whatever” to shut down a discussion.
  • Procrastinating or carrying out tasks inefficiently
  • Giving lip service to doing things differently in the future, while knowing they don’t plan to change their behavior.

The ultimate red flag is that passive-aggressive people cause others to eventually blow up and in a very real sense, act out the anger that the passive-aggressive person had been silently harboring.

There are many reasons why people choose to sugarcoat their anger but what most passive-aggressive people have in common is that they grew up with developmental conditions that made hidden expression of anger feel like their only tenable choice.  For the purposes of this post, let me lay out two distinctions:

  1. First, we know that some young people are raised in families where they know they will be met with harsh physical punishment or retribution if they express dissatisfaction or unhappiness.  Kids walk on eggshells around angry, aggressive, authoritarian adults, and learn quickly that their only safe option is to hide their true feelings.
  2. At a different extreme, there are kids who grow up in families in which appearances means everything. The normal, human emotion of anger must be subordinated to family facades.  In this type of outwardly perfect family, kids are socialized to believe that anger = bad and that good kids never show anger.

In both type of upbringings, kids learn that open, honest, direct expression of anger would be unacceptable.  And yet these feelings don’t just disappear.  Rather, they tend to re-surface through patterned, but covert misbehaviors such as carrying out chores incorrectly or pretending not to hear their name when they are called—things that create minor but chronic frustration for the authority figures in their lives. 

There are five distinct and increasingly pathological levels of passive aggressive behavior, ranging from the everyday to the truly troublesome.  Learning to readily recognize the behavior at any level is your first step toward avoiding being drawn into a passive-aggressive conflict cycle—a power struggle with no winners.  The levels are described as follows:

Level 1: TEMPORARY COMPLIANCE

At this level, the passive aggressive person verbally agrees to a request from an authority figure, but behaviorally delays completing it.  For example, in a classroom setting, a teacher may ask students to work quietly at their seats on an assignment.  For most students, this is an ordinary request, but for a passive aggressive student who feels angry and resentful at having to complete the assigned task, his response is to nod affirmatively when the teacher makes eye contact with him, yet find every excuse in the book—from sharpening his pencil to getting up to go to the bathroom, to asking the teacher a thousand questions, or distracting the students around him.  Every time the young person is re-directed by the teacher, he has a plausible excuse—he drank too much water at lunch, he didn’t understand the assignment, his pencil wouldn’t write—whatever!  But when the teacher begins to notice that this is not just a bad day for the student, but rather a chronic way of responding to unwanted tasks, she should understand this behavior as a form of passive aggression

The same caution goes out to all parents: when children show patterns of hidden hostility such as delay behaviors, endless excuses, and convenient forgetfulness, be advised that they may be engaging in passive-aggressive behavior.

What are an adult's options for dealing with passive-aggressive behavior at this level?  Early detection is key.  The real danger of passive aggressive behavior is that it often sneaks up on adults, quietly accumulating as a series of minor but irritating behaviors.  Then, suddenly, the young person makes one more excuse, one more delay—and adult finds herself suddenly at the limit of her patience.  The mother raises her voice, the father starts handing out punishments left and right, and/or the teacher basically reveals in front of the whole class that she has lost control of her emotions.  The passive aggressive young person, on the other hand, sits there cool as a cucumber, having succeeded in frustrating an authority figure and getting him or her to act out the anger the young person had been hiding.  Recognizing the telltale signs of passive aggressive behavior before getting caught up in them is a key strategy for any adult.

LEVEL 2: INTENTIONAL INEFFICIENCY

At this level, the passive-aggressive person verbally complies with a request—and unlike in Level 1, they actually carry it out—but they do so in a way that is purposefully below expected standards.  For example, in a classroom setting, that same student noted above may decide to get started on his assignment right away, but this time he uses completely illegible handwriting or turns in such non-sensical responses, that it is clear he is defiant in his compliance.

One of the best ways adults can cope with Level 2 passive aggressive behavior is to make it a point to set crystal clear expectations at the start of any assignment.  Then, when a student turns in sloppy, careless work or a child defines "cleaning his room" as stuffing everything under the bed, the adult can refer back to the expectations stated at the beginning of the task and re-direct the child to better their work.

LEVEL 3: LETTING A PROBLEM ESCALATE

At this third level of passive aggressive behavior, what we find are crimes of omission.  In other words, it’s not what the young person does, but what she doesn’t do, that creates a problem.  For example, I worked with a student who shared with me that she had been angry at her teacher because she felt like he had embarrassed her in front of the class by calling on her when she didn’t know an answer.  Feeling unable to talk to him about her feelings, she decided to show him.  The next day, as his class was being observed by the school Principal, the teacher began having trouble with his technology.  First, he couldn’t find the remote to advance the slides on his PowerPoint presentation, then he couldn’t get the speakers to work so that he could play a brief video for the class.  The student knew very well that the remote had fallen into the teacher’s briefcase earlier in the day and that the outlet he was using for the speakers has burned out.  Instead of telling him what she knew, however, she sat in her seat—silently satisfied and feeling like his embarrassment was quid pro quo for the humiliation he had caused her.

Level 3 passive aggression can be especially frustrating for adults to cope with, as a young person can legitimately say, “I didn’t do anything.”  Often, it is very hard to prove otherwise.  In this kind of situation, the adult’s best recourse is to maintain calm and really be a role model for his students on how to cope with difficult, frustrating situations.  By not losing his cool and blaming others and by staying calm and looking for solutions, the teacher plays a very important role in showing students how to be angry—productively.

LEVEL 4:  HIDDEN BUT CONSCIOUS REVENGE

At level four, the passive aggressive young person is no longer withholding behavior, but rather they are quite actively seeking ways to get hidden but conscious revenge on the object of their anger.  There are a lot of humorous examples of Level 4 passive aggression—such as the wife who is so angry with her husband for refusing to help her with a house project that she leaves their home for the day to go shopping with the TV remote control in her purse.  The internet literally abounds with memes showing funny instances of hidden revenge.  And while the lengths that some people go to to hide their anger really can be quite funny, the truth is that Level 4 passive aggression can also be very serious—and very destructive. 

A key note for adults who face Level 4 passive-aggressive behavior from children and students is to eliminate any gratification that a young person gets from his passive aggressive behavior and to establish logical consequences for their behavior. When these things can be done in a fair but firm way—where the adult conveys intolerance for the behavior while still showing acceptance and understanding of the young person’s emotional state, we start to see the beginnings of the end of the need for anger to be expressed in destructive, passive aggressive ways.

LEVEL 5: SELF-DEPRECIATION

The final level--Level 5 is labeled “Self-Depreciation” because the passive-aggressive person is so fixated on getting back at someone that she is willing to behave in self-destructive ways that lead to her own personal rejection and alienation.   For example, I knew a teen who was raised in a family that was very authoritarian. As part of their ethnicity and culture, young people were never permitted to openly argue with their elders.  In addition, respect for a father’s authority was absolute.  The parents of the family had deemed that their daughter would go to medical school and become a doctor, but the girl was very creative and wanted to go to Art School. Rather than dare openly assert her dreams to her parents, the teen purposefully failed all of her science and math classes in high school and sabotaged her own college applications, so as to be certainly rejected from all of the universities her parents preferred. 

Young people who are willing to cause serious, lasting harm to themselves through passive aggressive acts of self-depreciation need adults to recognize their behavior for what it is.   The ability to discern their true emotions from amidst the noise of their destructive behavior is critical in preventing further, riskier self-depreciation from occurring.  At Level 5, we are generally observing a pattern of pathology that merits professional intervention.

For more information on how to unmask the hidden anger of a passive-aggressive person and help that young person gain insight into the destructive nature of his behavioral pattern, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and the Workplace at www.lsci.org

Signe Whitson is a School Counselor and co-author of The Angry Smile.  For workshop inquiries, please email swhitson@lsci.org or visit www.signewhitson.com