Do Unrealistic Expectations Cause Passive Aggression?

How the words of parents, professionals, and peers can fuel hidden anger.

Posted Mar 05, 2018

Students with learning differences* are, first and foremost, children moving through the normal stages of development. Learning differences, however, prevent some young people from attaining the goals of each developmental stage within the expected time frame. This is especially true for children whose challenges are not readily apparent to others. Because of the “invisibility” of many learning differences, parents, teachers, and other caregivers may enforce a set of expectations that are unrealistic for these children.

When young people experience delays achieving developmental goals or meeting the expectations of others, they may feel inadequate. Likewise, they are often labeled as “difficult” or even “lazy” by their parents, teachers, and peers. For some, a self-destructive behavioral pathway is paved by this dynamic; the child with a learning difference who has failed in the eyes of his parents and significant adults may cope with feelings of inadequacy by employing passive-aggressive behaviors.

One student with ADD and a Specific Learning Disability described her pathway to passive aggression in this way:

When Regular Ed teachers gave me assignments that I didn’t understand, I used to feel helpless and “less than” my classmates. I used to want to prove to the teachers that I could control myself, so I acted on my resentments in very controlled, calculated ways. I knew that the teachers were in charge of my grades and could call my parents (in which case I’d be grounded or have my phone taken away) if I did anything outwardly to express my frustration with schoolwork. Instead, I’d do subtle things, like take a really long time to complete an assignment or ask the teacher so many questions that she’d just give up on me and tell me I didn’t have to do it. I used to feel like it was a major “win” for me if I could outsmart a teacher—and like maybe I wasn’t so helpless or dumb after all.

Unfortunately, the adolescent years only exacerbate this troubling develop­mental situation. The demands and pressures to catch up academically, to prepare for college or a career, to be accepted by peers, and to become independent too often fuel the young person’s feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

Children coping with learning differences and failed expectations may have low frustration tolerance around specific tasks, misperceive social interactions with others, have limited attention spans, and have low self-esteem. Passive-aggressive behaviors, through which students with learning differences can act out their anger in socially acceptable, barely perceptible (at the moment) ways, may become entrenched ways of relating.

What Some Children with Learning Differences Hear from Parents

First, a word of support for parents of children with learning differences. You deserve and should receive all the support, encouragement, and strategies that professionals can provide. Maintaining a family in the 21st century is not an easy accom­plishment under the best of circumstances; the stress and responsibility of meeting the needs of any child can wear down any parent. For parents of children with academic, emotional, behav­ioral, and/or social needs, it is even more common to feel overwhelmed and defeated. During emotional times, parents may give in to feelings of help­lessness; their child may hear them make impulsive and depreciating comments, such as:

  • “You are not using your brain or meeting your potential.”
  • “You are lazy and undisciplined and only think of your own needs.”
  • “You think you know everything, so you never listen to people who want to help you.”
  • “If you had a better attitude, your life would be better.”
  • “I’m sick and tired of trying to help you. You are impossible.”

What Some Children with Learning Differences Hear from Teachers

The demands on teachers and school personnel are likewise overwhelming. The primary objective of attending to the individual needs of a child with learning differences gets easily shoved aside by the multiple priorities and demands of general classroom management, federal mandates, and test scores. Teachers often learn the hard way that troubled children know how to short-circuit traditional attempts at classroom control. When feeling frustrated and powerless, teachers may give students impulsive and demeaning feedback:

  • “You are smart, but you are lazy.”
  • “You are more interested in fooling around and acting silly with your friends than you are in doing your assignment.”
  • “You could learn if you paid attention to my instructions.”
  • “You enjoy messing up.”
  • “You always have an excuse for everything.”

What Children with Learning Differences Hear from Some Peers

Peers sometimes fail to be sensitive and compassionate to others, particularly to students who appear different. Some special education students have been teased, humiliated, and scapegoated by their peers, resulting in feelings of rejection and anger. Here is a sampling of some of the names and comments that special education students have heard:

  • “Weirdo”
  • “Retard”
  • “Nobody likes you.”
  • “Did you ride in on the short bus this morning?”
  • “What’s the matter—forget to take your meds this morning?”

What Some Children with Learning Disabilities Say to Themselves

Children become what they hear others say about them. Over time, they internalize negative messages and come to believe that they are innately damaged, deficient, and dysfunctional. When angry, they may resent and passively oppose any attempt to behave at the level expected by others. Messages like the ones in the following list become part of a child’s belief system and guide the child as self-fulfilling prophecy:

  • “I am a disappointment to others.”
  • “No matter how hard I try, I can’t meet the expectations of my mom, dad, teachers, and friends.”
  • “No one understands how hard I try and how much I struggle.”
  • “If I try this and fail, everyone will make fun of me.”
  • “I can’t stand to be embarrassed in front of the class again!”

Some young people who repeatedly hear messages like the ones above from parents, teachers, and peers learn to protect themselves from feelings of inadequacy and rejection through the use of passive-aggressive behaviors. Through passive aggression, young people who feel powerless gain a sense of control by getting others to act out the covert anger they harbor deep within. Children whose very intelligence may be doubted due to their learning challenges can be quite clever in their opposition to authority, “misbehaving” through hostile cooperation and compliant defiance.

It is up to parents and educators to understand and anticipate the potential impact of “invisible” disabilities on students in order to accurately “see” the young person and avoid harsh, hostile, dismissive interactions that steer children with learning differences toward the use of passive-aggressive behaviors.

     * Any attempt to make sweeping generalizations about students with learning differences would be naïve and inappropriate. Like mainstream students, students with learning differences display the full range of personality patterns, from normal, healthy per­sonalities to troubled personalities that exhibit defiance, immaturity, dependency, anxiety, depression, or passive aggression. Our focus in this post is restricted to students with learning differences for whom the frustration and sense of inadequacy over unmet expectations are the contributing factors in the development of a passive-aggressive personality.

Signe Whitson is a School Counselor and co-author of The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriages and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online.  For more information on recognizing the red flags of passive aggressive behavior in schools and learning how to improve interactions with students, please check out The Angry Smile at


Long, N., Long, J. and Whitson, S. (2016).  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: LSCI Institute.