Hidden Anger: How to Confront Passive Aggressive Behavior in Kids

Do you ever feel like parenthood has got you engaging in the same conversations over and over again? Too often at our house, we have a recurring exchange that goes something like this...
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Do you ever feel like parenthood has got you engaging in the same conversations over and over again? Too often at our house, we have a recurring exchange that goes something like this:

Children: Can we get a dog? We really want a pug.

Parents: We can get a dog when you show us that you are ready to take care of one. First, you have to show us that you can feed the kitties everyday without needing reminders.

Children: But Moooooooooooom! But Daaaaaaaaaaaad! We doooooooooooo.

Parents: (Laugh. Exchange knowing glances.)

Last night, my husband was on his 95th reminder to our older daughter to feed the kittens. Following her 75th, "I'll do it in a minute" (she simply pretended not to hear the first 20 requests, as she kept her eyes glued to the computer screen), she all of a sudden got indignant:

"Fine. I'll do it right away. I don't know why you have to be so impatient about it, Dad!"

She ran to our cats' feeding bowls. We heard the pouring of the food. A lot of pouring, in fact. She ran back to the computer with an angry smile on her face and resumed her dry-eyed screen stare.

My husband and I walked over to check on the kitty bowls. Oh, she fed them alright. The food dish overflowed with food. The water dish overflowed with instantly-soggy food. The mat underneath was covered in kibble. The cats were indeed fed. Their meal, in fact, ought to last 'em for a month!

For those keeping score, that's 75 incidents of temporary compliance and one heaping serving of intentional inefficiency for my passive aggressive cat feeder. As an author of a book about effectively managing passive aggression, I feel just a wee bit of pressure to follow my own advice when it comes to stopping sugarcoated hostility in its tracks. With such a blatant -- and comical -- act of compliant defiance, I knew this was the time to talk about what was really going on in the situation.

My benign confrontation about the kitty feeding went something like this:

First, I recognized what my daughter's behavior was really all about. She did not mistakenly "miss" the food bowl or just "accidentally" pour food into the water dish. Nor did she experience "temporary deafness" when my husband was reminding her about her chore. Rather, her behavior was willful and had everything to do with the anger and irritation she feels when asked to complete her daily chores. She is no different from most kids (and adults!) who dislike having their activities interrupted by responsibility and she is not passive aggressive across the board. Certain situations, however, do bring out the best of her covert hostility.

Second, my husband and I both had to make a conscious choice not to yell, scream, behave like lunatics, or otherwise act out the anger that our daughter was hiding. Remaining rational is a prerequisite to effectively managing passive aggressive behavior.

Here's where the good stuff begins. I made a statement that named my daughter's anger gently, but directly:

I heard Daddy ask you several times to feed the cats and since you and I were sitting together, I know you could hear him too. I have to wonder why you chose not to answer him or to do your chore. I'm wondering if you are feeling angry about Daddy's request to feed the cats.

The simpler the better -- the statement is intended to affirm the anger she is feeling directly, but simply. Affirmation of a passive aggressive child's anger is powerful, because the child has been working diligently, through her behaviors, to avoid expressing anger directly. The knowledge that someone can see beyond the facade is surprising and impactful.

Next step: expect denial. It is not easy for most people to "admit anger." For the passive aggressive child, masking hostility is a priority. When talking to my daughter about the kitty feeding, a "confession" was not my immediate goal. Rather, I managed her predictable denial by stating, "It was just a thought I had."

It was not necessary to correct her denial ("I didn't mean to spill the food") or rationalizations ("I would have done it before I started my homework. Dad just wants me to do everything on his schedule") at this point. To be most effective, I simply left her with the thought that I was aware of her anger. That her anger is no longer a private secret is the best deterrent for future passive aggressive expressions.

In addition, whenever and wherever I can build my relationship with my daughter and highlight areas of her strength and competency (e.g. "You are kind and loving to your animals. Max just loves it when you brush him and show him he is loved."), I do so! Affirming that my daughter is a great kid at the same time that I assert that her passive aggressive behavior isn't gonna work out so well, is the key to changing her behavior in the long term.

I'm not saying my daughter now enjoys feeding the cats nightly -- or doing any of her chores, for that matter -- but I do know that these days she's doing a lot more flat-out telling me about her thoughts and feelings and a lot less dramatic showing me how she feels about chores. I'll take the anger coming straight at me over the angry smile anyday.

For more information on passive aggression and strategies for coping with this behavior in parenting, schools, relationships, and the workplace, please visit www.signewhitson.com or check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior.

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