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How a Passive-Aggressive Parent Can Negatively Impact Your Life

Having grown up with a passive aggressive mother, Ms. Meyers realized its legacy and vowed to become a better, more direct communicator.

The adult children of passive-aggressive parents may struggle with communicating directly, trusting others, and expressing anger.

The adult children of passive-aggressive parents may struggle with communicating directly, trusting others, and expressing anger.

The Effect of a Passive-Aggressive Parent

  • Do you loathe conflict and go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it?
  • Do you get turned off by assertive people, thinking they're too loud and forward?
  • Do you have a string of failed relationships behind you caused by your poor communication skills?
  • Do you distrust people, thinking they're gossiping behind your back?
  • Do you have trouble expressing your emotions, especially anger?

If you're nodding your head consistently, you may be like me—the adult child of a passive-aggressive parent. Growing up in a home where conflicts were handled indirectly (or not at all) may have left you ill-equipped to deal with the world as a grownup.

Passive Aggressiveness and Tomato Soup

When my 80-year-old mother was visiting, I asked if she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup (one of my favorite combinations on a cold day). She replied "yes." After finishing the meal, she then explained that tomato is her least favorite of all soups and that she only finished the bowl to avoid offending me.

When my husband arrived home from work, she told him the story of how I made her tomato soup and she doesn't even like it. Then, when my teenage sons entered the room, she told the tale once again. Without a doubt, I knew she would repeat this anecdote to everybody back at her retirement community. As with so many of her accounts throughout the years, she would come out looking like a martyr, and me the bad guy.

If this kind of interaction with a parent sounds familiar, you may have a mom or dad who's passive-aggressive. Their behavior has influenced you in many negative ways that you may not even realize. It's not too late, though, to become aware of its impact on your life and change course like I did.

Traits of a Passive-Aggressive Mother or Father

  • Covert Hostility. Passive-aggressive parents show hostility indirectly rather than overtly. They hide feelings of fear and vulnerability under covert expressions and gestures of hostility.
  • Resentment. They avoid people they don't like, procrastinate over tasks that they don't want to do, and ignore requests for favors.
  • Game-Playing. They use indirect ways of dealing with anger or negative emotions (gossip, sarcasm, procrastination, the silent treatment, guilt trips, avoidance, and sulking). They arrive late to events they don't wish to attend and gossip rather than discuss issues face-to-face.
  • Gossip. Instead of discussing their fears and feelings openly, they say negative things about others behind their backs. And they try to get you to join them in the gossip.
  • Finger-Pointing. They are extremely judgmental and critical of others, but not of themselves. They characterize feelings as "bad" or "good." They believe that "ugly" feelings should be hidden and will and should lead to rejection and ostracism. They blame others for their own problems.
  • Guilt-Tripping. They constantly complain about how disrespected or unappreciated they are and how unfairly they are treated.

We all do these behaviors from time to time. Passive-aggressive folks, though, do them often as a way to avoid open and direct communication. This makes it very hard to have a relationship with them.

Adult Children of Passive-Aggressive Parents Often Struggle in These 3 Areas:

1. Communicating directly. 2. Trusting others. 3. Expressing anger.

1. Communicating directly. 2. Trusting others. 3. Expressing anger.

Three Passive-Aggressive Things Parents Do and How to Deal With It

1. Indirect Communication

My parents never yelled or argued with one another when I was growing up, but ours was anything but a happy home. There was always an undercurrent of hostility and frustration conveyed by my mother's deafening silence. When mad with my father, she'd take off in the car and drive around for hours before returning to our house. She'd then give the silent treatment for a couple of days to punish him.

My siblings and I grew up thinking that this was normal husband-wife behavior. Years later as a newlywed, I slipped into my mother's silent treatment routine instead of expressing my anger and frustration to my husband. If I wanted to stay married, though, I had to stop this childish behavior and start communicating directly like a mature adult.

How to Deal With Pouting, Avoidance, and Silent Treatment

When we give the silent treatment, pout, or retreat, it shows that we suffer from low self-esteem just like our passive-aggressive parents. We lack the confidence to express our emotions and articulate our thoughts. We worry that our "ugly" feelings will cause us to be disliked and rejected. We, therefore, avoid direct communication and retreat to childish behaviors.

I learned how to turn this around by reading 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. This illuminating book by Andrea Brandt, a long-time psychotherapist, helps us understand how our parent's indirect hostility shaped our communication style. Moreover, it gives us advice on how to become stronger communicators.

Dr. Brandt defines passive-aggressiveness as "a coping mechanism people use when they perceive themselves to be powerless." Therefore, to liberate ourselves from these behaviors, we must take charge and talk honestly and directly in a forthright manner.

To learn more about emotional withholding in mother-daughter relationships, read 5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother.

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Read More From Wehavekids

Low self-esteem can often lead to passive-aggression.

Low self-esteem can often lead to passive-aggression.

Some suggest that passive-aggressive behavior may stem from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged or not allowed. People may feel that they cannot express their real feelings more openly, so they may instead find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration.

— Kendra Cherry, author of "Everything Psychology Book"

2. Lack of Trust

I grew up in a home with a gossipy mother who badmouthed family members, friends, and neighbors. In adulthood she frequently targeted my older sister, complaining that she was a lousy housekeeper, a permissive parent, and a neglectful wife.

As a result of her rants against my sister and others, I developed a deep distrust of people. I became paranoid that folks were talking behind my back, making harsh judgments, and being unkind.

My passive-aggressive mother gossiped because she was too scared to speak bluntly and then deal with the fallout. Instead of expressing her concerns to my sister, she talked behind her back. While this made her feel better at the moment, it didn't solve the problem. It was also poor role-modeling and made me suspicious and cynical of others.

How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive Communication and Gossip

When passive-aggressive folks gossip, they're using you instead of dealing with the problem directly. Moreover, they're insulting your integrity by thinking that you have a low character and are open to such talk. They're hurting you in the long run by making you less trusting. That's why it's essential to your own well-being to shut it down immediately.

Albert J. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, recommends that “whenever gossips say something negative about someone, say something positive.” I use his advice with my mother and find it quite effective.

When she starts to criticize my sister, I respond with something kind and supportive. I'll say, for example, “She's a devoted mother who does so many fun activities with her kids,” or “She's juggling so much right now with work and night classes.” My affirmative comments let my mother know that I'm closed off to any negativity and gossip.

To learn more about the effects of a parent's negative words, read 5 Reasons Parental Verbal Abuse Is Far More Damaging Than We Thought.

This video explains how gossip is a passive-aggressive behavior, a betrayal, and a way to feel superior.

3. Inability To Express or Admit To Anger

I grew up in a home where my dad often displayed anger, but my mom never did. I learned from watching and listening to her that it was a taboo emotion, especially for females. It was ugly, unladylike, and to be avoided at all cost.

Because angry feelings can't be bottled up forever, though, they emerged in many covert ways. She used passive aggressive-behaviors such as sarcasm, the silent treatment, avoidance, and sulking. When I became an adult, I adopted these as well because I thought they were safe and appropriate for a woman.

My inability to express my anger came to a dangerous climax, though, when my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. My suppressed rage finally caught up with me, and I wound up in counseling and on anti-depressants. My therapist said that depression is anger turned inward. I had stuffed my rage for so long that I had fallen into a deep despair.

How to Handle Anger

Looking back at that time now, I realize that my reaction to my son's diagnosis was just a symptom of a much bigger problem. I knew I had to come to terms with all my feelings, especially anger, and learn to express them in a timely and constructive manner.

When I'm mad now, I deal with it by talking, exercising, and writing in my journal. I've learned how destructive passive-aggressive behaviors can be to my health—physically and emotionally—and I'm never going down that road again.

Anger has many positive qualities: It tells us when something is wrong, it can help you in terms of getting you to focus, evaluate your values and goals and strengthen your relationships and connections.

— Andrea Brandt, therapist and author of "Mindful Anger: The Emotional Path to Freedom"

Did you have a passive-aggressive parent?

Questions & Answers

Question: I grew up with a passive aggressive mother and people walk all over me. What can I do?

Answer: Being a doormat is your legacy as the adult child of a passive aggressive parent, but you don't need to stay that way. You had a role model, your mother, who didn't speak directly, couldn't handle problems head-on, and avoided conflict at all cost. While growing up, you adopted many of these behaviors and thought that this was how adults interact in the world. Today, though, your silence and inaction speak volumes and tell people that they can treat you poorly and you won't fight back.

As the daughter of a passive aggressive mother, the hardest thing for me was learning how to speak up in the moment. I'd grown up with a mom who suffered in silence, played the martyr, and bottled up her emotions. Throughout my 20's and 30's, I did the exact same thing. As a result, I stuffed my feelings with food, felt powerless, and became severely depressed. When I discovered how to become assertive and deal with things in the moment, I became empowered and my sadness dissipated.

My husband recently told me that he was taking a trip to visit his elderly parents in another state. In the past, I would have stayed quiet and felt wounded that he was going without me. I would have done some classic passive aggressive moves such as sulking, pouting, and giving him the silent treatment.

Instead, though, I immediately asked him why he was going alone. He explained that he wanted to discuss some private family matters with his mom and dad regarding their wills and medical directives. By being assertive and speaking up, I cleared up the matter, didn't feel hurt, and avoided a problem between us.

When I was growing up, my mother always said: “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Therefore, I got the message that staying silent was best. That, however, turned me into a perpetual victim. Today, I let my voice be heard and handle problems when they arise. If you start doing the same, your life will change in miraculous ways and you'll feel much better about yourself.

Question: My father manipulates to get what he wants. What should I do?

Answer: All passive-aggressive behaviors—pouting, gossiping, procrastinating, sulking, giving the silent treatment—are manipulative. Like many other folks, your father probably started behaving this way as a child because it got him what he wanted. As a result, his behaviors are deeply ingrained and highly resistant to being altered. That's why it's crucial that you change yourself by refusing to become a participant in his manipulations. After all, it takes two for a manipulation to succeed.

Call out his behavior immediately and be specific. As a passive-aggressive person, he doesn't act in an honest and direct way so you need to be the one who's forthright in the relationship. Tell him that you see his actions as a manipulation and you won't fall for it. Then disengage. Don't reward his behavior with your time and attention because that may be exactly what he's wanting!

When I was growing up, my mother would manipulate me with compliments. It was her way of keeping me engaged with her problems and getting the attention that she craved. She'd tell me her marital woes, for instance, and I would give her input and advice (which probably wasn't worth much since I was a kid)!

Then, to keep me on the hook, she'd flatter me: “Oh, you're such a wonderful listener...You're so insightful and helpful...I'm so glad that I shared this with you and got your take on it...You'd make a wonderful marriage counselor someday.” Needless to say, this was heady stuff for me as a kid—just what I needed to hear to stay involved with her problems.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized how she had manipulated me all those years. Even at the point when I could see the dynamic clearly, I continued to be a willing participant because I wanted to stay close with her. I knew that she wouldn't want much of a relationship unless I continued to play that same supportive role. When I finally decided to stop, it was with that knowledge and acceptance that she would no longer want to spend much time with me.

Stand back from the situation and ask yourself why you let the manipulation continue when you clearly see it. What's the payoff for you? What will you lose when you no longer participate? Are you willing to accept that loss?

The change starts with you. I wish you well with that.

Question: My father has made near constant passive aggressive comments about me and I'm only realizing now how much it's destroyed my self-esteem. How can I build myself up?

Answer: I’m glad that you’ve recognized your father’s passive aggressive remarks for what they are and acknowledge their negative impact on you. The author, Peggy O’ Mara, offered a cautionary note to parents by saying: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Through the years, you have internalized your dad’s hostile comments and now need to reprogram your thinking. If you’re struggling to do that, cognitive therapy can help.

Focusing on positive self-talk and daily self-care will be invaluable as you heal. You need to replace your father’s negative words with your own kind, supportive ones. You need to develop habits such as exercising, meditating, and writing in a journey to promote your well-being. The good news is that this is all within your control.

There is no better way to build one’s self-esteem than by setting goals and working hard to achieve them. No self-help book, no assertiveness training workshop, no hours of therapy will be as effective. Our self-confidence increases when we do hard things and make ourselves proud. They can include losing weight through a daily exercise regime, signing up for classes to learn a second language, mastering a new style of cooking, or training for a marathon. Conversely, when we set out to reach a goal but then quit, we get down on ourselves and our self-esteem slips.

As you move forward, it will be important to limit contact with your father. Moreover, you’ll want to spend more time with friends and family who are positive and supportive. Best of everything to you!

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on August 18, 2020:

Carla, I’m so glad that reading my article gave you insight on your family and motivation to learn more. For those of us who grew up with passive aggressive parents, it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint the dysfunction because everything happened under the surface. There were no big blow ups that led us to say: “That was the root of the problem.” You’re very wise to focus on reading more and taking good care of yourself. Trying to change passive aggressive folks is truly a fool’s errand.

Carla on August 17, 2020:

Thank you, Mckenna. This article quite literally just changed my life. I have spent so so many years (i am 33) never being able to put a finger on what is wrong with me any why my family and i dont ever talk about anything...ever. it wasnt until i moved in with my partner and his family last year that i realised families actually discussed issues, had family meeting etc. I thought those were just Disney Movie imaginings!!! As i said ive spent years trying to determine what was wrong with me when i had never thought id experienced any trauma in my life, i had a comfortable, safe and somewhat sheltered upbringing and thought all trauma was caused by huge violent or abusive events. The daily practice of passive aggressive behaviour never hit me. Until now. Thank you again, i'm off to do some research and give myself all of the self-care! :-)

McKenna Meyers (author) on August 14, 2020:

Yes, Glenn, when we’re not vigilant, angry and negative people can take us down with them. When I was a newlywed, I had a neighbor who always complained about her husband. Before I knew it, I had joined in with her to kvetch about my guy even though I had no real complaints. It took me years to appreciate that some people just love negativity. I’m not one of them, though, so I stay positive and just move on from them.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on August 14, 2020:

My parents weren’t passive aggressive, but my mother was often angry. She displayed her anger by expressing her thoughts in a similar way to how your mom made comments about you. I found your story very insightful for that reason.

I learned from you something that is quite useful, McKenna. When someone treats me that way, just respond with something kind and supportive.

I can’t do that with my mom anymore since she passed away many years ago, but that method is useful for dealing with anyone who acts like that.

McKenna Meyers (author) on August 10, 2020:

Thanks for the kind words, Cheryl.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on August 10, 2020:

Great article. Thank you for your insight.

McKenna Meyers (author) on April 17, 2020:

Emotionally yours, I have one word for you to get through this trying time: acceptance. Don’t imagine that you can change your mom or build a better relationship with her during this period. Instead, realize she is who she is and focus on taking good care of yourself: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Set up a daily routine of self-care activities: meditating, praying, practicing yoga, walking outside, writing in a journal, phoning friends, and reading. Decide upon some activities that you and your mom can do together that you both find soothing: watching a favorite TV show, playing a board game, going for a drive, preparing a meal. The spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, says: “Accept this moment as if you had chosen it.” He wasn’t speaking specifically to this coronavirus pandemic, but his words certainly apply to it. If we try to fight this reality, we only create more stress for ourselves. Take good care and stay safe!

Eimotionally Yours on April 17, 2020:

I'm currently self isolating with my mum and she will be under lockdown til June 21st .

Growing up she always made everything about her. She still does. The tomato soup story really resonated with me. All tips and advice gratefully received.

McKenna Meyers (author) on January 13, 2020:

As I start to dread my 83-year-old mother's upcoming visit, I definitely empathize with you. I always go into it with the best of intentions: to stay calm, to take care of myself, and to not let her get to me. Inevitably, though, I lose my patience at some time point because she repeats constantly and doesn't seem to absorb anything I say. You're correct that it's a combination of passive aggressiveness, old age, and short-term memory loss. It's unlikely that a passive aggressive person will change so it's best to change yourself. Whether it's finding a different place to live, putting a lock on your bedroom door, or forming an alliance with your dad, I hope that you'll find some workable solutions. This is no way for you to live. Take care!

RoothieII on January 13, 2020:

Commenting here because there is no one else I want to tell, but I've got to vent. I moved into my elderly parents' home three years ago and I'm getting really annoyed having to deal with my mom's passive aggression. For example, when I moved in, I told her that I eat dinner at 8:00 pm and would not be eating dinner with them at 5:30. I just realized that I've been with them now for three years and she has literally asked me over 1,000 times, "Will you be eating dinner with us tonight?" I've just been saying "No, I'll be dining at 8:00 pm." She is a little senile, so I was patiently answering her every night, but I've come to realize that she knows when I eat and that her question is just a form of harassment because she is angry that I don't eat with her. I'm going to confront her on this tonight and let her know that I know SHE KNOWS I won't be dining at 5:30 and she needs to finally accept that. Also, that her behavior is actually driving me away, and making it less likely that I will want to dine with her. She is 93, and I will probably just have to patiently put up with it. But I'm going to be direct with her and hopefully it will improve our relationship. I'm very introverted and she's very extroverted and needs to have people around her all the time. She also lacks boundaries- knocking on the bathroom door, walking into my room without waiting for me to say it's okay, etc. so it's tough for me to get time to myself. I knew it would be difficult living with her and I knew I would have to suffer this kind of stuff. Maybe I don't have to suffer so much. Maybe being direct will help.

McKenna Meyers (author) on May 19, 2019:

Thanks for your kind words, Pamela. I, too, grew up in a home where we couldn't express our emotions and voice our opinions. When I got out in the real world, I couldn't even articulate what I thought. Perhaps, that's why I turned to writing! Now I "feel the feels" as people say today because I know it's key to my well-being. It doesn't come naturally, though, and I can easily revert to that little girl who bottled up everything and became depressed. People often joke about passive-aggressive behaviors and minimize them, but they can be so destructive in our lives and relationships.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 19, 2019:

This is such a thorough, well-written article about passive aggressive behavior. I relate to some parts of this, not the gossip but the doing anything to avoid conflict. I have worked hard over the years to express my feelings and not just be silent.

At my house growing up we better not have an opinion about anything that disagreed with their views. I just shut up about anything that would result in me being shamed by them. Actually, my mother changed for the better over the years and we became very close. That is not especially true for my sister and I unfortunately.

Thank you for sharing such valuable information. We keep learning until we die I think.

McKenna Meyers (author) on March 29, 2019:

Doris, I know how frustrating it is to deal with passive aggressive individuals and can't imagine being married to one. It sounds, though, like you're handling it well. My grandmother was an alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver when my mom was 8. After her death, my mom was sent to a boarding school and stayed there until she graduated from high school. Her passive aggressive ways stem from feeling rejected by her mom and the resulting damage to her self-esteem. During her time at boarding school, she shut down emotionally because she had no family to hear her anguish. Today, her passive aggressive behaviors allow her to express hostility but in a seemingly "nice" way. Like your husband, there's no way she would ever change because her passive aggressive ways are too deeply ingrained. Best to you!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on March 28, 2019:

McKenna, your article is very interesting and on the spot. I did not have passive aggressive parents. They were both very capable of speaking their mind. However, a few years back, I realized that I have a passive aggressive husband. I have explained to him how hard that makes life for me, but he is as immovable as the blob. In fact, I've told him so. I've also come to the conclusion that he has Asberger's Syndrome. He was diagnosed as dyslexic as a child and trained to manage it, but back then, they didn't know much, if anything, about autism or Asberber's.

Which brings up a question. I wonder what kind of life your mother had to deal with to make her PA. You mentioned your autistic son. Could it be possible that autism runs in your family, and your mother dealt with an autistic family member in the only way she knew how? I used to really fight back anger dealing with my husband's PA, but now I let it all hang out and put his pouting and PA right back on him. I see no reason to take it.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 27, 2018:

Paula, what a beautiful and uplifting response to my article! I'm so pleased it helped you recall those memories of your wonde