THE BLOG
02/20/2013 10:43 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

The Angry Smile: Recognizing and Responding to Your Child's Passive Aggressive Behavior

How does a mother explain how her preschooler remembers every detail of an episode of The Backyardigans, but can't for the life of her "remember" 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 "didn't hear" his teacher assign homework? And why do you sometimes teeter on the brink of insanity just because your middle schooler missed the bus... again?

Passive aggressive behavior is a deliberate and masked way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009.) 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!

Most parents involved in daily interactions with a passive aggressive child are ultimately worn down. 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 fraught relationships with their children.

Know It When You See It
The ability to recognize passive aggressive behaviors as they are occurring is critical in helping you avoid becoming an unwitting victim of your child's destructive way of engaging you. Passive aggressive behaviors often take these forms:

  • Verbally denying feelings of anger ("I'm fine. Whatever!")
  • Verbally complying but behaviorally delaying ("I'll clean my room after soccer.")
  • 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!")

No Empowerment
Never allow yourself or anyone else to be held hostage by passive aggressive behavior. For example, if a mother says to her other two children, "We can't go to the movie until Hayley feeds the dog," she gives Hayley control over the rest of the family's schedule. Though the mother's intent was to create group pressure on Hayley, the passive aggressive child interprets this as, "Thank you, now I can frustrate everyone." Instead of solving the problem, the mother has inadvertently escalated it!

If you do make the mistake of empowering your child's passive aggression, the damage can be undone. The mother in this 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." This re-establishes the control from the child to the adult.

Set Clear Expectations
Passive aggression children often feign confusion in order to frustrate adults (e.g. "I thought you meant I could finish my homework after I played football"). The most effective way to manage this type of compliant defiance 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."

Establish Logical Consequences: Responding to Delay Behaviors
Procrastination is a common pattern of passive aggressive behavior in children. The rule 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, do not argue with her or get into a long discussion about her excuses for being late. Instead, say, "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.

Passive aggressive behavior in children can cause parents to feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster. A parent's well-crafted response can bring that destructive ride to a steady end and lay the track for smooth rides and genuine smiles.

Signe Whitson, LSW is the author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com