The Angry Smile: Responding to Passive Aggressive Behavior
How to stop endless power struggles and no-win battles with kids
Posted Dec 18, 2017
Amber had been giving her mother the silent treatment all week. She was angry about not being allowed to sleep over at a friend’s house. Late Thursday night, she left a note on her mother’s pillow, asking her mom to wash her uniform before Friday’s soccer game. When Amber returned home from school on Friday, in a rush to pack her gear, she looked all over for her uniform. She finally found it in the washer—perfectly clean, as per her request—but still soaking wet! Amber was late for her game and forced to ride the bench.
When all was un-said and done, Amber’s mother felt defeated. Having one-upped her daughter in the conflict, it was clear to her that she had lost by winning. As parents, most of us have been in situations where traveling the low road is irresistible and we become temporarily reckless in our driving. Anytime we mirror a child’s poor behavior instead of modeling a healthier way to behave, our victories add up to long-term relationship damage and lasting hostilities.
What could Amber’s mother have done differently in this hostile un-confrontation? What can any parent do to avoid the agony of victory and the defeat of healthy communication? The following guidelines offer parents strategies for maintaining their calm in a passive-aggressive storm and responding in ways that lay the groundwork for less conflictual relationships with their children and adolescents.
1. Know what you are dealing with.
Amber’s silent treatment is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior. In The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace and Online, authors Long, Long and Whitson define passive aggression as a deliberate and masked way of expressing feelings of anger. Common passive-aggressive behaviors in young people include:
- Verbally denying feelings of anger (“I’m fine. Whatever!”)
- Verbally complying but behaviorally delaying (“I’ll clean my room after soccer.”)
- Shutting down conversations ("Fine" and "Whatever")
- Intentional inefficiency (“I did make my bed. I didn’t know you meant all of the blankets had to be pulled up!”)
- “Forgetting” or “misplacing” important items (“I don’t know where your car keys are.”)
- Avoiding responsibility for tasks (“I didn’t know you wanted me to do it. Putting away the clean dishes is his chore!”)
Parents who are familiar with these typical patterns are able to respond directly to their children’s underlying anger and escalating problems into no-win power struggles.
2. Don't act out the passive-aggressive person's anger.
Passive-aggressive people master the art of concealing their anger and getting unsuspecting others to act it out for them. Some targets of passive aggression respond with an outburst of anger and frustration—yelling, finger-wagging, threatening punishment—then feel guilty and embarrassed for having lost control.
Others mirror the passive-aggressive behavior. Case in point, when Amber’s mother purposely left the soccer uniform in the washer, she mirrored the anger that Amber had been feeling all week long. What’s more, her counter passive aggression ensured that the anger between mother and daughter would linger, fester, and grow more intense over time in its buried, unaddressed form.
3. Say yes to anger.
Anger is a basic, spontaneous, neurophysiological part of the human condition.As such, it is neither good nor bad. It just is. Too often young people are held to an unrealistic social standard about what it takes to be “good.” From a very early age, they begin to associate having angry feelings with being bad. Like Amber, our children perceive anger as taboo and take steps to suppress angry feelings.
When parents teach their children to say “yes” to the presence of anger and “no” to the expression of anger through aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviors, they build a foundation for lifelong emotional intelligence and strong relationships.
4. Be the change you want to see.
Each time passive-aggressive behavior is answered with a mirrored counter passive-aggressive response, the hidden means of expressing anger is reinforced and an opportunity for direct emotional expression is lost. On the other hand, each time passive-aggressive behavior is confronted directly and assertively, the hidden anger is weakened.
The most effective way for our kids to learn to acknowledge and accept angry feelings is to role model assertive communication for them on a daily basis. As parents, this can be a real challenge since we, too, may have faced stringent socializing forces regarding the expression of our anger. It’s never too late to learn to express anger in emotionally honest, direct ways, however, and the stakes have never been so high.
5. Allow it! Tolerate it! Encourage it, even!
The final essential angle to confronting passive-aggressive behavior in our kids is our willingness to receive their anger when they test out their new voice. If you are going to guide your child to be more open and direct with his anger, then you must also be willing to accept his anger when he expresses it appropriately. For many, this is truly difficult. But for lasting change to take hold for Amber and other young people, they must know that the assertive expression of their anger will be tolerated, respected, and even honored.
For workshop and training information on changing passive-aggressive behavior, please visit www.lsci.org.
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 and Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.