Do you ever feel like you are riding on an emotional roller coaster with your child? Is your little one friendly and sweet one day, then sulky and withdrawn the next? Does your teenager consistently procrastinate, postpone, stall and shut down any emotionally-charged conversation? Do you, as a parent, ever resemble that same portrait? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, chances are good that passive aggressive behavior has found a way into your home and family.
Passive aggression is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). It involves a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without having to actually say the dreaded words, "I feel angry." Passive aggressive behavior thrives in many families because it is often a more comfortable -- and effective -- way of dealing with anger than honest self-expression. For example, a teen learns early on that openly rebelling against a curfew could lose them of car privileges for a week, but a convenient, "So sorry, Mom! I completely lost track of time" excuse may just gain them another late Friday night with friends. Likewise, when a 10-year-old tells his mother he won't be coming to the dinner table because he hasn't finished playing his Wii game, he may find his game unceremoniously turned off, but if he pretends not to hear his Mom's repeated calls to the table, he may just get the extra 10 minutes he needs to get to the next level.
Convenient forgetting of curfews, temporary deafness at mealtime and other expressions of resentment served with a sugary-coating are often more socially acceptable than directly verbalized anger. For the recipient of the compliant defiance, however, passive aggression is one of the most frustrating and destructive dynamics in any relationship. Awareness of these eight common passive aggressive phrases can serve as an early-warning system to help parents recognize hidden hostility when it is being directed their way:
1. "I'm not mad."
Denying feelings of anger is classic passive aggressive behavior. Rather than being upfront and honest when questioned about his feelings, the passive aggressive child insists, "I'm not mad" even when he is seething on the inside.
2. "Fine." "Whatever."
Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the passive aggressive person. Since passive aggression is motivated by a person's belief that expressing anger directly will only make his life worse, the passive aggressive person uses phrases like "Fine" and "Whatever" to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.
3. "I'm coming!"
Passive aggressive kids are known for verbally complying with a request, but behaviorally delaying its completion. If whenever you ask your child to clean his room, he cheerfully says, "OK, I'm coming," but then fails to show up to complete the chore, chances are he is practicing the fine passive aggressive art of temporary compliance.
4. "I didn't know you meant now."
On a related note, passive aggressive kids are master procrastinators. While all of us like to put off unpleasant tasks from time to time, people with passive aggressive personalities rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.
5. "You just want everything to be perfect."
When procrastination is not an option, a more sophisticated passive aggressive strategy is to carry out tasks in a timely, but unacceptable manner. For example:
• A child who doesn't want to be bothered with his chore of feeding his dogs "accidentally" puts the dry food in the water dish and spills the water all over the floor.
• A student completes his homework in an illegible, sloppy way.
• A kid's definition of picking up his room is piling everything on top of his bed.
In all of these instances, the passive aggressive person complies with a particular request, but carries it out in an intentionally inefficient way. When confronted, he defends his work, counter-accusing others of having rigid or perfectionist standards.
6. "I thought you knew."
Sometimes, the perfect passive aggressive crime has to do with omission. Passive aggressive kids may express their anger covertly by choosing not to share information when it could prevent a problem. By claiming he thought his father knew about an important appointment, the child justifies not having passed on a phone message about the event.
7. "I was only joking"
Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of a passive aggressive child who expresses his hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways. If you show that you are offended by biting, passive aggressive sarcasm, the hostile joke teller plays up his role as victim, asking, "Can't you take a joke?"
8. "Why are you getting so upset?"
The passive aggressive child is a master at maintaining his calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his indirect hostility, blow up in anger. In fact, he takes pleasure out of setting others up to lose their cool and then questioning their "overreactions."
Recognizing the red flags of passive aggressive behavior in a family is the first step in refusing to engage with your child in a relationship-damaging war of words. For more information on how to effectively confront and change passive aggressive patterns, check out "The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces," 2nd ed.