How does a mother explain how her preschooler remembers every detail of an episode of Doc McStuffins, but can’t for the life of her recall where the puzzles go at clean-up time? What’s really going on with a fourth-grader who quotes verbatim the whispered conversations of faraway classmates, but insists that he did not hear his teacher assign homework? And why do you sometimes teeter on the brink of insanity just because your eighth grader missed the bus, again?
Passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberate and masked way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2017). It can begin as early as the pre-school years, when children learn that compliant defiance can be more satisfying (and less likely to result in punishment) than tantrums, whining, and other disruptive ways of expressing emotion. It can exist as part of a normal, passing stage of development or, if unchecked, can develop into a way of life. Passive aggression explains why children experience extreme forgetfulness at clean-up time and temporary deafness when homework is assigned. Likewise, it accounts for why reasonable and rational parents react to seemingly minor incidents in irrational, conflict-fueling ways!
Passive-aggressive behavior in children often takes these forms:
- “Forgetting” directions
- Resisting demands
- Intentionally making mistakes
“So what?” you may be thinking.“These behaviors are not really that big of a deal.”
The destructive nature of passive aggression lies precisely here; on the surface, the child’s behaviors appear ordinary—as minor irritations at worst. Act by act, each is easily tolerated. However, these covert rebellions are like drops of water accumulating silently in a jar. Only at the overflow point do most parents first gain awareness that their jars are at capacity. A mother receives one new, single drip of her child’s passive aggression (“I didn’t know you wanted it done now, Mom!”) which, though minor on its own, is enough to cause her jar to overflow.
She yells. She screams. She surprises herself with the intensity of her outburst. Moments later, full of guilt, she apologizes profusely for getting so angry at her child. Truth be told, most parents involved in daily interactions with a passive-aggressive child become worn down and lose their cool more often than they’d like to admit. If you recognize these dynamics taking place in your family, these five strategies can help you respond to your child in ways that reduce passive-aggressive conflict and increase honest, respectful communication:
1. Recognize the Red Flags of Passive Aggressive Behavior
The ability to acknowledge passive-aggressive behaviors as they are occurring—and long before you become emotionally flooded—is critical. Avoid being an unwitting victim of your child’s destructive way of engaging you by recognizing passive aggression on the spot. Along with the behaviors noted above, be on the lookout for young people who:
- Deny anger
- Resent authority
- Give excessive excuses
- Use the silent treatment
- Keep others waiting and dangling
- Claim misunderstanding or ignorance
- Shut down conversations with "fine" and "whatever."
2. Change course as needed
Never allow yourself or anyone else to be held hostage by passive-aggressive behavior. For example, if a parent says, “We can’t go to the movie until Hayley feeds the dog,” he gives Hayley control of the situation. Though the intent was to create pressure on Hayley, the passive-aggressive child interprets this as, “Thank you, now I can frustrate the whole group.” Instead of solving the problem, the parent has inadvertently escalated it!
If you do make the mistake of empowering your child’s passive aggression, the damage can be undone. The parent in our example can reverse the situation by saying, “I have thought it over and I’ve decided to change my mind. We can all go, but Hayley will have to stay until the dogs are fed.” This re-establishes the parent as the decision-maker, while still giving the young person the power to make a good decision.
3. Role Model Respectful Communication
When a child pretends not to hear you, try the technique made famous by the classic TV detective, Colombo. Rather than using an angry, in-your-face approach, Colombo cleverly engaged suspects through his respectful, subtle manner. The same approach works wonders with passive-aggressive children. In this reported example, a mother asked her child to put on his coat before a trip to the grocery store:
After three requests with no response, I approached Aidan and spoke in a soft voice—as if I was talking to myself, but still loud enough that my son could hear me. “Isn’t this interesting,” I commented. “I asked Aidan to get his coat on and he pretended he didn’t hear me. I’ll ask him one more time and see what he does.” Then, I looked Aidan right in the eye and said, “Aidan, will you please put your coat on and stand by the door?” My act worked! Aidan put his coat and his shoes on right away!
Remember—a passive-aggressive child’s goal is to get you to explode in anger; when you maintain a Columbo-esque calm, your child learns that passive-aggressive behaviors will not work and is forced to relate to you differently.
4. Set Clear Expectations
When passive-aggressive young people have a pattern of feigning misunderstanding or ignorance of the rules (“I thought you meant I could finish my homework after I played football”), the most effective course of action is to set crystal clear expectations at the very outset of an interaction and to never assume that a passive-aggressive child understands your request. Even if the task you are assigning has been carried out many times in the past, be sure to review your expectations for quantity, quality, deadlines, and dates. Use care not to allow sarcasm in your voice as you detail the request, but rather set your expectations in a neutral, assertive tone.
For the child who claims confusion over playtime vs. worktime, you might say, “Chris, when all of your homework is complete and correct and I have signed your folder, you may go outside and play football until dinnertime.”
5. Establish Logical Consequences
Procrastination is a common pattern of passive-aggressive behavior in children. The best approach for dealing with this type of behavior is to establish logical consequences. For example, if you tell your fifth-grader to change into her school clothes as soon as dance is over, but she comes out of the studio 20 minutes after her lesson still wearing her leotard, it is not constructive to argue with her or get into a long discussion about her excuses for being late. Instead, model honest, respectful communication by saying, “You decided not to change on time and therefore we are choosing to end dance early next week.” If your daughter tries to argue, do not take the bait. Remaining calm and not taking on her anger is the most effective way to disengage from the passive-aggressive conflict and to disarm the power of her hidden anger. Remember to follow through with limits.
Signe Whitson is a school counselor, mother of two, and co-author of The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online.
Long, N., Long, J., and Whitson, S. (2017). The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.