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What to Do About Passive Aggressive Behavior in Children

Toknowinfo is a counselor and freelance writer with years of online writing experience, with writing that covers a large range of topics.

Is your child passive-aggressive?

Is your child passive-aggressive?

Passive Aggressive Behavior and Anger

Passive-aggressive behavior begins in childhood.

This type of behavior is a result of hiding anger because a child has not learned how to safely channel their feelings. Parents can cause children to stifle angry emotions, denying them a way to express themselves, and suppress feelings of anger.

Anger is an emotion that will come out one way or another. If it can’t come out in a natural way, it will come out in a covert, hidden way. Anger needs to be expressed, and children, teens, and adults with passive-aggressive behavior will use passive resistant ways to let their anger out. They believe this is a safer way. They will use sabotage, retaliation, and other negative behavior to justify their feelings that they believe are unsafe to show others.

Anger is a natural emotion. Children are often deemed “good’ by standards the adults set for them. When a child has angry feelings, they are often viewed as “bad”. When a child learns to suppress these feelings, they remain a hostage to the feelings they believe they are not allowed to vent. When a child learns to express their anger in a healthy way, they learn to build a strong model of emotional intelligence, and solid relationships that will last a lifetime.

It is a natural course of development for children to behave passive-aggressively. Their behavior can cause difficulties at home, at school, and socially.

Passive-aggressive children and adults are relatively unaware of their own behavior. As children, passive-aggressive behavior leads them to be resistant to many requests, even when they are not overly demanding. They do not want to be held accountable for their actions and will blame others or use manipulation.

A child will be aware that they have hostility towards authority figures but don’t connect the ideas of resistance with the resentment, hostility, and antagonism they feel.

Passive Aggressive Tendencies in Children

Children with passive-aggressive tendencies do not want to take on any responsibility, but will never openly express their resentment. When they do things poorly, they do not want to accept responsibility. They are usually not very assertive and are purposely inefficient. They will procrastinate and intentionally forget to avoid satisfying the obligations that are put upon them. They often will try to get the person they are trying to take revenge upon, agitated to get them to react. A passive-aggressive child or adult is not usually trusting of others.

Passive-aggressive children are not usually bothered by their own behavior, but their behavior bothers others.

Passive-aggressive children believe their efforts are not appreciated by their parents and teachers. They often don’t do their share of the work and it becomes put upon others to get it done. Procrastination is an often-used tactic to not do the things that others ask them to do. They believe the requests of others are unreasonable.

Passive-aggressive people shut down conversations. They will sulk, become irritable, and be argumentative. They criticize people they view as authority figures. They will purposely work slowly and resent any suggestions to improve efficiency and productivity.

A passive-aggressive person complies verbally, but their actions do not match what they say they will do. They deny any feelings of anger.

Clues that Your Child May Have Passive Aggressive Tendencies

Here are some common phrases that may be clues that your child is passive-aggressive:

  • "I couldn’t do it because..."
  • Says "I'll be there in a minute," but it takes much longer
  • "Whatever"
  • "Fine"
  • "I didn’t hear what you said" (when they clearly did)
  • "I didn't do it"
  • "I forgot to do what you told me, you should have written it down for me"
  • "I tried to do what you asked, but I didn’t know what you really wanted, so I just left it"
  • "I will do it, but I have to do something else first"
  • "Doing that is someone else's responsibility"
  • "I didn’t know that was what you wanted me to do"
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Here are some tips for dealing with the passive-aggressive child:

  • Encourage your child to express the feelings that fit them.
  • Allow your child to shout and get angry, don’t get angry back or shut the expression of their feelings down.
  • Stay calm (you, the parent!).
  • Help your child understand that you are there for them to help them deal with the emotions they are feeling.
  • Be receptive to your child’s anger. Help them to express their anger and learn to just let themselves feel.
  • Tell your child you respect their feelings.
  • Model good behavior for your child.

Parents and Kids and Family Dynamics

If you, as the adult responds passive-aggressively to your child, you are reinforcing the hidden ways that they can express their anger. By modeling an open expressive way of dealing with feelings you are creating opportunities for direct and healthy expressions of their emotions. By teaching them to effectively show their anger, you are helping them to confront their feelings and express them assertively and openly. You weaken the hidden anger and eventually will help it to disappear. Being honest with your emotions is a lesson for a lifetime with your children.

Give positive feedback when your child completes a task. Praise them for the small things they do, as well as the big things they do. Tell your child what an important role they play in the family. Encourage them to make decisions, and validate that it is okay even if they are incorrect. Let them know their choices do matter.

Children need to find healthy ways to express their feelings of anger. They need to know it is okay to say “I feel angry”. They need to say words that allow them to vent, and it is up to you to help give their feelings a voice. Validate their feelings. Show your children you respect them and their emotions. Help them to deal with what they are feeling without feeling distraught. Let them own their feelings and help them to find new ways to feel better about what they are experiencing.

If you notice that the expression of anger in your children is coming out indirectly, and you help them to express themselves without fear, they will grow to be happier adults.

Children who are stubborn, irresponsible, seemingly lazy, forgetful, and displaying other negative behavior, may very likely be passive-aggressive. You will often see this in children who are as young as preschool age and through adolescence. This is because emotions are the last thing to develop as children grow.

Kids Want to Feel Independent

Children and their parents engage in power struggles on a daily basis. Kids want to feel more independent from adult control. While parents try to set limits, children resent their intrusion and the idea that they are being held back.

Children have trouble asserting their needs and learn to create behaviors that allow them to rebel against their parents. The parent is more than likely just being protective and watchful over their child.

This puts the teenager in the role of having to be subservient, agreeable, and compliant to the rules or demands of the parents.

At times when the teen feels these demands are not what they want to comply with, they often will automatically become either rebellious or passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressive behavior is usually chosen to avoid conflict in the home. Passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating to anyone who becomes their target, in this case, Mom and Dad.

Typical behavior may include forgetting to do what is asked of them, doing their chores poorly, not doing something because they say they didn’t hear their parent’s request. They will do many things where the end result is to frustrate their parents.

Passive-aggressive behavior can also be seen in younger children also. It helps avert punishment because it looks like they tried. Outright tantrums may get them punished by their parents, but accidentally unwrapping a piece of candy has innocent connotations that will get them what they want with fewer repercussions from their parents.

How do you deal with passive-aggressive teens and kids?

How do you deal with passive-aggressive teens and kids?

Children Often Outgrow Passive Aggressive Behavior

Children of all ages who behave this way are developing in a normal way and usually do not pose any issues after the temporary behavior ceases. Usually, children will express their needs in other ways too. They may use humor, aggression, assertiveness, regression, diplomacy, or dependency. When passive-aggressive behavior is only part of the many choices they use and is not their typical pattern of behavior, it is not problematic. When it is a chosen reaction to the situation, and not a visceral reaction to anyone they view as an authority figure, and part of their personality style, there is no need to believe it is part of a personality disorder called Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder, or Negativistic Personality Disorder.

Passive-aggressive behavior can be corrected. One example is how a passive-aggressive child uses procrastination. It is helpful to set up logical consequences of punishment.

The problem with passive-aggressive behavior is that parents are put on an emotional roller coaster. So it is important to set your path on a course that will bring about positive results.

Nagging doesn’t work. Passive-aggressive children use their ways to control you, by resisting your demands. By not answering you with honest intentions, they lead you to believe they will comply. They don’t communicate their real feelings well or deal with their feelings of anger in a true manner.

They are trying to avoid confrontation. A passive-aggressive person feels like they win when you either give up out of frustration or you end up yelling at them. They win either way.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 toknowinfo


Catherine Berry from Belgrade on September 18, 2019:

I used to be this way! As I matured into my mid-twenties, I stopped doing a lot of the things listed. "Forgetting" or avoiding completing a task asked of me was a big one.

It was really interesting to reflect on my past poor behavior. To this day I am still guilty of being passive-aggressive on occasion. Seeing the "symptoms" written down makes them much more real and I think I'll be able to catch myself in the future.

Thanks for the great article!

Husband is passive aggressive on February 22, 2019:

Husband is extremely passive aggressive and he likes when he sabotages everything but hates when you call him on it... He wants so much for our children to see him as the go to person that he would rather it let everything else fall. The older he gets the worse it seems to get. He portrays the victim and is never in the take responsibility role. He thinks that he was the one only responsible for having our kids and if he could just get rid of the women he would be the model father... this goes really deep with him and his actions speak volumes towards that thinking.

Pella Lee on September 03, 2018:

My 13 year old son is very passive aggressive. I know it is my fault. I have an explosive temper and I vacillate between that and being apologetic. However, I have always been very loving, affectionate and supportive. But I alternately can be critical. So I know I am sending him mixed messages.He doesn't express emotion, even when his father died. I get the feeling he doesn't feel extreme emotion, ie. anger, is safe. I understand why he feels that way. I suffer depression, ptsd and anxiety and I feel so horrible that I can't be the parent he always needs. I try so hard but my psyche is damaged. I want so badly for him to be happy and emotionally available, he is always in a good mood for the most part but he has limited interests and seems unwilling to take risks or try new things. I feel like an abject failure as a mother.

toknowinfo on August 14, 2017:

Hi Cynthia,

It is so common for teenagers to be rebellious. Additionally, there is a difference between passive aggressive behavior and being passive aggressive in situations. Passive aggressive behavior is a part of personality and doesn't usually show itself until around the age of 18. Passive aggressive situationally has to do with being obstinate or spiteful in a specific situation. Most teenagers feel powerless, think they are smarter than adults, and have few ways to assert themselves so they react passive aggressively. It doesn't mean they will be that way as they get older. Hopefully this article will help you negotiate easier with her. Best of luck and keep in touch.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on August 13, 2017:

Wow, parenting must be really problematic these days if our recent experience is any indication. We had our two pre-teen granddaughters for three weeks, the younger one being all the positive child traits (happy, singing all the time, helpful, etc. etc.), and the older child, in puberty, demonstrating a great deal of passive-resistant behaviour along with a definite internet addiction (huge tantrums nightly around giving up her iPad for the night). Your article is very helpful in 'normalizing' some of these very trying behaviours. We pray that this too will pass, since she does actually have a number of lovable character traits and I do not believe that she is ruled by the passive aggression. on March 22, 2013:

Thanks TKI - very interesting and useful for parents but as I read this I thought wouldn't it be dreadful if we wrongly interpreted a slow child as passive aggressive? I think we need to delineate the differences clearly in this respect.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 22, 2013:

We have one that lives next door. I'd love to have her mother read this hub. Great information...I wonder if most parents who have passive aggressive children realize it?

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