passive aggressive behavior in families

3 Ways that Kids’ Anger Bites Back


How many of you were told as a child, “Don’t be mad at your friend. She was just kidding,” or even “It’s not nice to be angry with your parents?” How many of you–gulp–have even uttered messages like these to your own children? Don’t worry; my hand is raised also. Despite the fact that I just wrote a book about helping kids accept and manage angry feelings, sometimes these knee-jerk responses just fly out of my mouth–as they do everyone else’s.

Are they the worst things to say to a child? Well, having worked for several years with abused children, I can definitively say (more…)

>I’m Gonna Teach Her How to Flick ‘Em!


>You just never know who you’ll meet in line at Panera Bread.

So yesterday, I’m standing in line, hoping that my wiggly 5-year old daughter doesn’t knock down the cookie display, when her booty-shaking antics attract the amused attention of the man behind us.  He explains that he has raised 3 daughters himself and that my little mover reminds him of his eldest. 

This trip down memory lane brings him to share with me several anecdotes (it was a long lunch-rush line!) about the trouble that his first-born created over the years.  From demanding money (no $1’s, Daddy!) to sneaking around with boyfriends, he laughingly recalled the struggles he went through with his lawyer-to-be eldest daughter.

Just when it was my turn to order, he shared with me the line that this Blog was waiting for:

She has a daughter of her own now,”  he smiled.  “So guess who taught their grandchild how to pick her nose in public?”

He laughed with a self-satisfied grin and a classic angry smile.

As I smiled, waved and turned my back to place my order at the counter, he guffawed, “Next, I’m gonna teach her how to flick ’em!”

Sometimes, passive aggressive revenge is years in the making, but look out, girls…dad is plotting!

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>What’s Your Anger Expression Style?


>Is your daughter the type to come right out and tell you when she is feeling angry? Does she stuff her anger inside? Perhaps she is most likely to express her feelings in sneaky ways. Or maybe, when she is mad, the whole world knows about it—and better step aside! Whatever your child’s anger style, chances are she has developed it over the years and modeled it after…gulp…much-loved family members.

Click on the link below to complete an Anger Expression Style Quiz I developed for the website Mom It Forward:

What’s Your Anger Expression Style? Take This Quiz to Find Out

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>If You Say One More Word… Passive Aggressive Comments From the Back Seat!


>One of the funniest gals I know relayed this story about her son who is following in her comic footsteps…much to his demise in this instance:

The family of four is on a 5-minute drive to a nearby restaurant for a Valentine’s Day dinner.  Starting on minute one, the 4-year old son starts talking back to his father and just being disrespectful, in general.  By minute four, approaching the restaurant parking lot, the dad has had it.

Dad: That’s enough, Jack.  No more talking back.  If you say one more word, I’m going to turn this car around and take you home, and there will be no Valentine’s Day dinner for you.

Jack: Thinks for a moment.  Then, yells, “A!”

Dad:  Turns the car abruptly and begins to head back towards home.  “You are done!  I am bringing you home.”

Jack:  But Dad!  I only said “A!”  That’s not a word, it’s only a letter!

Poor Jack–he couldn’t resist that passive aggressive little dig at his dad, even at the known risk of losing dinner at his favorite restaurant.   Classic Level 5 Self-depreciation!!

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>Passive Aggressive Laundry


>This morning at my kids’ karate class, I overheard a woman telling her friend that she was so mad at her husband that she tossed a blanket that her son had vomited on in with her husband’s laundry…how’s that for passive aggressive?

>School Dance Wars on Modern Family


>ABC’s Modern Family gives me some of my best laughs…and also some of the best passive aggressive fodder.  Check out this clip from Gloria and Claire’s territory war over the school dance:

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>10 Common Passive Aggressive Phrases to Avoid


>This article was recently published on
Is there someone in your life who consistently makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? Do you know a person who is friendly one day but sulks and withdraws the next? Does a family member or friend consistently procrastinate, postpone, stall, and shut down any emotionally-laden conversations? Are you sometimes that person? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, chances are you may be interacting with a passive aggressive person or showing signs of passive-aggressive behavior yourself.

Passive aggression is 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 him recognizing the underlying anger. These ten common passive aggressive phrases can serve as an early-warning system for you, helping you recognize hidden hostility when it is being directed your 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 person 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 (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008), 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 persons 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, “Okay, 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 persons 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 student hands in sloppy homework
  • A husband prepares a well-done steak for his wife, though he knows she prefers to eat steak rare
  • An employee dramatically overspends his budget on an important project

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 persons may express their anger covertly by choosing not to share information when it could prevent a problem. By claiming ignorance, the person defends his inaction, while taking pleasure in his foe’s trouble and anguish.

 7. “Sure, I’d be Happy To.”

 Have you ever been in a customer service situation where a seemingly concerned clerk or super-polite phone operator assures you that your problem will be solved. On the surface, the representative is cooperative, but beware of his angry smile; behind the scenes, he is filing your request in the trash and stamping your paperwork with “DENY.”

 8. “You’ve Done so Well for Someone with Your Education Level.”

The backhanded compliment is the ultimate socially acceptable means by which the passive aggressive person insults you to your core. If anyone has ever told you, “Don’t worry—you can still get braces even at your age” or “There are a lot of men out there who like plump women,” chances are you know how much “joy” a passive aggressive compliment can bring.

 9. “I Was Only Joking”

Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of a passive aggressive person 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?”

 10. “Why Are You Getting So Upset?”

The passive aggressive person 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.”

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. Her blog, Passive Aggressive Diaries, was designed to take a light-hearted look at the hilariously conniving ways in which people encounter and exude passive aggressive behavior in their everyday lives.  She also serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute.   Her work is brought to you by a baby clothes boutique in an effort give back to the parenting community.  Pay it forward – check out their adorable selection of baby accessories and shower gifts.

>Slap the Chicken


>Great passive aggressive clip and angry smile example on last night’s episode of ABC’s Modern Family.  At the beginning of the clip, Gloria is open and honest with her anger at Jay for not respecting her Colombian customs, but when she finds her direct expressions mocked, she turns to more covert means of getting her point across:

The “interview” clips are always the best part of this show.  I love her self-satisfied angry smile as she explains her chicken-slapping revenge.  Can’t get enough of this show!

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>The Season Finale of The Real Housewives of NJ Delivers!


>The passive aggressive person lives for indirect expressions of anger and covert acts of aggression;  facing direct confrontation about their feelings and behaviors is among their greatest fears.  On last week’s Season 2 Finale of The Real Housewives of NJ, Caroline causes Danielle to face her worst nightmare when she requests a face-to-face meeting to address the “nonsense” of their tangled family drama:

Most passive aggressive people have a perception of being chronically mistreated and underappreciated.  They cast themselves in the role of “victim,” which allows them to feel justified in hurting others in passive aggressive ways.  This season, Danielle’s revenge on her housewife cast mates comes primarily through actions toward their children, as Caroline explains in the clip above.  Her season-dominating legal wrangling with Jacqueline’s daughter, Ashley, is the best example, highlighting the difference between direct aggression (Ashley pulling Danielle’s hair extensions) and passive aggression (Danielle using the media to publicly damage Ashley’s reputation and perjuring herself by claiming that threats were made on her life.)  Danielle also took shots at the other kids throughout the season, including calling Caroline’s son a homosexual slur, and taking this hilarious, snarky shot at Teresa’s children (all under the age of eight):

The Real Housewives of NJ is like the made-for-TV version of The Angry Smile, bringing all of the book’s theory and explanations of passive aggressive behavior to life.  I couldn’t have written a better script–and no one would have believed it if they weren’t seeing it play out on TV each week!  Now, rumor has it that the Bravo network has fired Danielle!  Will there be a third season without the passive aggressive diva? 

I’m a week behind on my TV watching because I was on vacation…must now go watch the DVR’d clip of the Reunion episode.  Has anyone seen it yet?  What passive aggressive minefields am I in for?

If you are interested in reading more about passive aggressive behavior in families and friendships, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces. While you’re online, please also check out the adorable baby clothes and headbands at My Baby Clothes Boutique. My Baby Clothes Boutique has partnered with me to provide great parenting tips for their customers as a thank you for their loyalty. Check them out next time you need to get a baby gift!

>Passive Aggressive Behavior on Modern Family


>I presented a workshop on The Angry Smile this past week to the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists. What a great group! During a break in training, a participant reminded me of two episodes from ABC’s Modern Family that are both classic & hilarious examples of passive aggressive dynamics between a parent and child. Many thanks to her for suggesting these clips:

In the first clip, (Season 1, Episode 18), Haley informs her mother at the last minute that she needs cupcakes for the next school day. Haley then proceeds to text her friends, stand at the sidelines while her mom bakes, and do everything BUT contribute to the work. When the cupcakes are made, frosted, and all ready…the mom ceremoniously dumps them in the trash, with a classic angry smile on her face. Watch Haley’s reaction! So good.

In the second clip (Season 1, Episode 20), younger daughter Alex doesn’t mind her mom driving her everywhere she needs to go, but can not bear the thought of actually being seen with her mother! After several rounds of blowing her mother off, the clip begins with Alex offering an apology to her mother. Though her words appear sincere at first, when the apology takes a turn toward the self-serving, the mom gets her own mortifying passive aggressive zinger in, in front of all of Alex’s friends:

Teach those kids to screw with her, indeed!

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