Passive-Aggressive Child Behavior: Hidden Anger in Kids
Does your child take forever to get up, eat breakfast and do his homework and chores? You nag, threaten and repeat yourself, but he still doesn’t seem to pay attention to anything you say. Here, James Lehman explains the passive-aggressive ways kids control you—and how they use it to avoid responsibility.
It’s important to understand that while some kids with behavior disorders get angry and act out, these kids get angry and act in.
Passive resistance is when kids learn to develop power over you by resisting you. In fact, it’s the opposite of aggression: instead of threatening or yelling at you, a passive-aggressive child simply doesn’t answer you. He just walks into the house, goes upstairs and doesn’t say anything. When you call up to his room, he pretends not to hear you; instead, he makes you come upstairs. Understand that this is one way for a child to have power, and many become experts at this kind of passive-aggressive behavior.
These are kids who generally don’t know how to communicate well or solve the problems associated with anger or anxiety. It’s important to understand that while some kids with behavior disorders get angry and act out, these kids get angry and act in. Understand that I’m not talking about passive personalities—I’m talking about passive resistant behavior. These are kids who use resistance as a way to get back at you, and to gain control or power. They’re the kids who say, “I don’t want to do what Mom wants me to do, but I won’t confront her. I’ll just drag my feet until she leaves me alone.” Or he’ll blow you off until he frustrates you—and in his mind, if he annoys you and you start yelling, he wins. After all, you lost control, and he didn’t. Now he feels like he’s in control: you’re frustrated and you’re yelling, “Why aren’t you doing your homework? I told you three times!” And he’s sitting there on the sofa, satisfied with the knowledge that he got to you. Sometimes he tells you to stop yelling and leaves you feeling frustrated and foolish.
How Does Passive-Aggressive Behavior Develop in Kids?
Passive-aggressive behavior in kids is a big problem in a lot of parents’ lives. For one reason or another, their child develops a way of avoiding feelings or confronting anger. They don’t learn how to talk about conflicts, frustrations, hostility and the things they think are unfair. Sadly, this pattern will often continue to develop in a person’s life through adulthood—and make no mistake, it causes serious problems for them. Think of how destructive passive-aggressive behavior is in adult relationships. When adults can’t be assertive and communicate their needs, they often rely on passive resistance—little ways of getting back at their spouse which eventually cause a lot of resentment and anger to build. Instead of building bridges, passive-aggressive behavior tears down communication quietly, closing window after window.
When people are passive-aggressive, realize that they often don’t really know it until it’s identified. They’ll tell you that things don’t bother them and they don’t care, but then you’ll see them fighting their partner or resisting things for no apparent reason. And kids will be the same way. They’ll tell you they don’t care and that it doesn’t matter, but then you’ll see them resisting you over something that’s meaningless. They do it by being real slow to get their homework started, not answering when you talk to them, and ignoring your requests to do their chores.
How Do Kids Control you with Passive Resistance?
By resisting you, your child is often training you to give up and leave him alone. He’s training you to believe he can’t do it. He’s making you lower your expectations so you’ll expect less from him. And the truth is, passive resistance often works for kids.
I think parents really need to be on top of this kind of behavior. There’s a concept in the mental health field called “learned helplessness” which is very important for parents to understand. This is where kids learn that if they act helpless, eventually someone else will do the job for them. They learn that if they resist long enough, you’ll do the dishes yourself. If they don’t answer you when you call them, you’ll eventually walk upstairs or take the garbage out. Or if they shut down when you ask them to mow the lawn, you’ll still give them $15 when they need it. Bit by bit, your expectations are lowered until you don’t have expectations anymore. But realize that once you do this, you’re only setting your child up for failure. Really, childhood and adolescence is the time in your child’s life when he needs to grow and learn. If you let them off the hook with few responsibilities, they simply won’t gain the skills they need to move on to adulthood. Even though they may feel like they’re getting away with something, they’re actually falling into a trap that will be very hard for them to climb out of later.
Why It’s Healthy to Get Angry in Front of Your Kids
I think from the time your kids are young, you need to encourage them to voice anger or hostility appropriately. You can say, “Just like parents get angry sometimes, it’s okay for kids to get angry, too.” In fact, I think it’s healthy to let your child see you angry—and then see you get over it and resolve the conflict. It’s better for kids to learn by what they see and hear, rather than to simply listen to speeches about how they should behave. Remember, the idea is not to never get angry as a parent—the idea is to be a good role model for your child by handling your anger appropriately. So when you get angry, handle it like an adult. In my opinion, if you can’t handle your anger and simply hold it in all the time—or on the other hand, if you’re explosive—your child may not learn how to handle anger effectively, either.
I know it’s popular these days for people to say that you should never get angry in front of your child. In my opinion, children who grow up in homes where parents handle anger effectively will learn to handle it, too. Think of it this way: if you hide your anger as an adult, how is your child going to learn to handle his anger and frustration?
Should I Talk to My Child When He Drags His Feet?
I believe it’s a good idea to sit down and talk with your child when there’s a behavior issue you want to address with him. It’s important to find out if his anger or anxiety is getting in the way, if he understands the assignment he’s procrastinating on, or if he’s having problems at school.
Certainly we want to rule out things like depression, thyroid problems, or other factors that might be contributing to this behavior. If you think there are physiological causes for your child’s behavior, have him assessed by a trained medical professional as soon as possible.
Understand that most kids will drag their feet if they don’t understand their homework or if it looks too big for them. That may be passive resistance, but it’s passive resistance because they’re afraid of something or they’re frustrated. I believe that the parenting roles of “Teacher” and “Coach” are vital in this situation, because you want to help your child learn why this is happening, and then coach him to be more organized.
Tips for Helping Your Child When He’s Avoiding Something:
Compartmentalize the Assignment: When your child thinks an assignment or task is too big, you can help him as a parent by teaching him how to compartmentalize tasks. You can say, “Let’s get this much done tonight.” Or “Let’s get this much of the project done this week.” A good way to handle this is to ask your child, “How much do you think you can get done tonight? How much do you think you can get done this week?” That way, you’re teaching him how to plan. If he comes back with something that’s too little, you need to say, “No, I don’t think that’s enough. I think you’re selling yourself short. Why don’t you try to do this much instead?” If he gives you an amount that sounds too big, just say, “That sounds like an awful lot to me. It may not be realistic, Thomas. Let’s see how much you get done in an hour and then reevaluate it.” So you help him learn how to moderate himself and get organized.
Use Hurdle Help: In the Total Transformation, there’s something I call “Hurdle Help.” This is where you get your child started on something that he’s having a hard time with on his own. So for example, if it’s an English assignment, ask him some questions about what he’s writing about. You might give him a sentence to begin the project. I’m not suggesting you do the assignment for him—rather, you get him over the first hurdle and let him take it from there. All kids need a little boost to get started.
Keep Distractions to a Minimum: Keep the bedroom door open and the music off when your child is doing schoolwork. Check in on him intermittently to make sure he’s actually doing the work. Reduce distractions. If you can’t check in on him enough, have him do his work downstairs. The idea is that your child should understand that he has to perform whether he’s angry or not. I don’t care if his anger is carried out in a resistant way or in an aggressive way—he’s still responsible for it.
When Kids Use Passive Resistance to be Non-compliant
When kids use passive-aggressive behavior in order to get away with not following through on their responsibilities, I believe you need to be very firm with them. There are definitely things you can do to improve this kind of behavior, but whatever you do, keep your “good enough” parenting skills in place. You want to have an open mind and be objective. When you’re angry and frustrated by your child’s behavior, remind yourself that he’s only your child being annoying—even if he seems like a monster at that moment.
Remember, passive-aggressive behavior is an ineffective coping skill. In order for a child to stop using it, they have to learn an effective coping skill with which to replace it. Coping skills will not be abandoned because they’re ineffective unless a more healthy coping skill is learned to replace it.
Tell Your Child the Consequences of Inaction—and Set Time Limits
Sit down and talk with your child when things are going well. Tell him straight out what you see happening: that he’s not producing enough, striving enough or pushing himself enough. Then tell him what the consequences will be from now on. Inform him that you’re going to set time limits on what has to be done, and if he doesn’t meet that time limit, then he’s going to lose his phone or computer until it’s done.
Certainly it’s up to parents to be reasonable about the timeframe. You can even say, “I want the basement cleaned by Monday. And if not, you’re losing your phone till it’s done.” So you don’t have to give your child tight time frames. I think it’s better to give him choices. But regardless, he needs to be held accountable if he doesn’t get it done within a certain time.
Build in Rewards: You also want to build in rewards for your child for getting things done early. Train your child that there’s a reward for putting in effort and getting the task done early and pushing himself. So just like there’s a reward for kids when they don’t act out, there’s a reward for your child when he doesn’t act in. Meeting his timelines would be one of the goals. For example, if he has all his homework done the night before, finishes breakfast without dawdling, gets ready for school and gets to the bus on time in the morning, he gets a reward. You might let him stay up a half an hour later. In this way, you’re training and motivating him to do things on time.
Invite Your Passive-Aggressive Child to Talk about His Anger: If you think your child is being passive-aggressive because he gets angry and can’t voice his feelings, invite him to talk about those things. Just say, “If you’re angry about something, it’s safe to talk to me.” And I think “safe” is an important word here. Say, “It’s okay if you feel angry or afraid, but continuing this behavior won’t solve the problem. Talk to me. I’ll try to hear you. But I expect you to do the work whether you’re angry or not. Being angry is no excuse.” Parents can also train kids by directly stating what you see happening: “I think you’re not loading the dishwasher because you’re angry that I wouldn’t let you stay out last night late. And I want you to know that I understand that—but it’s not a justification. You still have to do the dishes. And if they’re not done by eight o’clock, I’m taking the keyboard out of your room.”
Remember, expectations have to remain clear. Whatever happens, your child has to learn how to perform, how to produce, and how to survive in life—that’s all there is to it. Too much excuse-making has come into our culture, and too many people have been allowed to get away with not keeping up with their responsibilities. You see people at 35 who have had mediocre jobs that they don’t like all their life and they can’t get ahead. They have no skills because no one ever made them follow through and do the work. I think that very clearly, the message has to be, “You have to learn to take care of yourself and meet your responsibilities. You’re accountable.”
Do we want to be understanding? Yes. Do parents need extra training for kids like this? Often they do. But nonetheless, the responsibility is ultimately on the child to grow up and learn how to live in our society—and on the parents to teach him how to do it.