“Passive-aggression” is just that: aggression (i.e., anger) that is passive (i.e., hidden). If children are taught to suppress and deny their feelings, they will seek out ways of getting around that. They will find other channels to express themselves – ways that are “passively resistant.” This is how sabotage (e.g., covert behavior, forgetting, ambiguity, chaos creation, etc.) and retaliation (e.g., overt punishment, eye for an eye, “justified” abandonment or abuse, etc.) are learned.
Most children have passive-aggressive tendencies, and can continue to live this way if moms and dads don't help curb this behavior.
What comes with the territory?
- Children with passive-aggressive tendencies are usually unaware that their difficulties at home and school are a result of their own behaviors.
- Passive-aggressive children are resistant to demands for adequate performance both in social circumstances and in the classroom.
- Rather than take responsibility for their own actions, they tend to blame and manipulate others.
- They experience conscious hostility toward authority figures, but do not connect their own passively resistant behavior with hostility or resentment.
- They have resentment of responsibility, and they show this resentment through the expression of a variety of methods – other than openly expressed anger.
- They tend to be non-assertive and intentionally inefficient.
- They tend to use procrastination and forgetfulness to avoid fulfilling obligations.
- They try to get revenge through agitation.
- They usually do not trust others.
- These behaviors are usually not disturbing to the child, but to those who interact with him/her.
- This pattern usually begins in early childhood and can occur in various contexts.
Signs of passive-aggressive behavior:
- "Forgets" or "misplaces" important items
- Avoids responsibility for tasks
- Believes that he/she is doing a much better job than parents/teachers think
- Can’t seem to accept responsibility for problems resulting from his/her poor performance
- Blames others for his/her problems
- Fails to do his/her share of the work, thereby obstructing other's efforts
- Performs poorly
- Protests (unrealistically) that everyone is making unreasonable demands
- Shuts down conversations
- Sulks, becomes irritable or becomes very quickly argumentative
- Tends to work slowly or deliberately do a bad job on tasks that he/she really does not want to do
- Unreasonably criticizes people in positions of authority
- Usually resents useful suggestions from others on how to become more productive
- Verbally complies, but behaviorally delays
- Verbally denies feelings of anger
Phrases to let you know your child is being passive-aggressive:
- Be there in a minute.
- Fine, whatever.
- I couldn't find my pen, so I didn't finish my homework.
- I couldn't hear you. I had my headphones on. What did you say?
- I did all of my homework.
- I did make my bed.
- I don't know where your car keys are.
- I forgot about the laundry in the dryer. Leave me a note next time.
- I took the laundry out of the dryer. I didn't know you wanted it folded.
- I tried to unload the dishwasher, but I didn't know where the plates went, so I left them on the counter.
- I will, but I have to go to the bathroom first.
- I'll do it right after school.
- I'll do it right after this show.
- I'm coming.
- Putting away the clean dishes is his chore.
Moms and dads who are familiar with these typical patterns are able to respond directly to their children's underlying anger. Here are some tips to stop passive-aggressive behavior:
1. Allow your youngster to openly express his feelings in ways that suit him. If he shouts or gets angry, don't get mad too. Remain calm and let him know that you understand and are willing to help him deal with his feelings.
2. Anger is a basic, spontaneous, neuro-physiological part of the human condition. As such, it is neither good nor bad. It just is. Too often, children 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. When parents teach their kids 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.
3. Be willing to receive their anger when they test out their new voice. If you are going to guide your youngster to be more open and direct with her anger, then you must also be willing to accept her anger when she expresses it. For many, this is truly difficult. But for lasting change to take hold, they must know that the assertive expression of their anger will be tolerated, respected and even honored!
4. Each time passive-aggressive behavior is answered with a mirrored counter passive-aggressive response from parents, 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 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 this for them on a daily basis. As moms and dads, 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. Encourage your youngster when he shows good behavior and completes assigned tasks. Positively praise your youngster for his effort, regardless of how small of an accomplishment it is. Celebrating your youngster's positive behaviors can work in raising his self-esteem. Also, make your youngster an active part of the family. Let the youngster know that her opinion is always welcome and that she plays an important role within the family. Occasionally let her make decisions as to what to eat or where to go, showing her that her choices matter.
6. Passive-aggressive kids need to be taught to find healthy ways of expressing anger. They need to know they can say “I’m angry.” They need to be taught the vocabulary for this. When they do, appreciate their voicing it (e.g., “I’m glad you shared this with me”). Ask them to stay in that feeling (e.g., “Why don’t we sit down and talk about why you’re angry?”). Then ask leading questions (e.g., “Why are you angry?” … “What do you need that you’re not getting?). Validate those feelings, and let the youngster know those feelings are theirs, they are human, they are OK (e.g., “Well, it’s normal to feel mad when you don’t get something that you really want!”). Lastly, follow that up with teaching kids that there is no need to become distraught. Instead of jumping to demand an immediate solution, they need to learn the value of owning their feelings, and finding ways of helping themselves feel better.
7. Parents who role model assertive anger expression and practice direct communication of feelings can teach their children effective ways to express emotions.
If you notice that your child expresses anger indirectly across most situations and seems to fear communicating anger directly, addressing this sooner rather than later will save you hundreds of headaches in the future.