When Passive-Aggressiveness is Passed on in a Family

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
September 8, 2019

Children are often described as little sponges. The tiniest bit of information seems to fully absorb in a matter of minutes, until the sponge is saturated with that tidbit of knowledge. Children watch their parents, siblings, and loved ones very closely, while taking an informal inventory of how to act. Children then utilize their findings and swiftly put them into practice. 

passive aggressive kid

Through this implementation, they learn if what they have absorbed is acceptable for them to say, use, or do. In turn, parents are often surprised at what their children have picked up on, as some of it is from body language, unconscious gestures, nuances, or from items that have been unconsciously linked together. 

Styles of communication are often not verbalized in a family. Very few parents sit their children down and have a family meeting, where it is formally decided that all members will act assertively. Instead, in an unspoken fashion, little sponges watch and observe the styles of communication used in their household. They take their informal inventory and again put the results into practice. It is often the case that individuals are not completely aware of the types of communication styles that they use, let alone what they are inadvertently passing along to their children. 

Passive-aggressiveness is a unique style of communication where the expression of anger and frustration is avoided and instead, comes out in intentional behaviors designed to enrage and annoy others. Passive-aggressive behaviors can include the denial of angry feelings, withdrawing from a situation, not carrying tasks out properly, or employing revenge tactics. A passive-aggressive communication style is damaging in that feelings are not appropriately addressed and anger is hidden and given time to fester.

When passive-aggressiveness is passed on in a family, children can begin to display these behaviors as early as their preschool years. It can be part of a normal stage of development, where testing boundaries is the norm, or it can become solidified into a way of life. 

In order to stop the cycle, parents need to understand and acknowledge passive aggressive behavior as it is occurring in themselves and in their children. They must then be a positive role model by modeling assertive and respectful communication. Parents should deny a child of the infuriating response that they are seeking and need to employ and follow through with consequences for negative behaviors. 

If you are an adult who grew up in a passive-aggressive environment, rest assured that the cycle can be broken. Individuals need to be mindful to communicate and express feelings freely without fear of repercussion. Acknowledging and expressing anger is healthy and confrontation done in a respectful way can actually be helpful in resolving conflicts. If your passive-aggressive parents are still in your life, you can learn new skills in order to relate differently with them.

It is no secret that children are sponges and can instantaneously soak up knowledge with bright eyes and vigor. However, it is important to note that adults can absorb new knowledge as well, although admittedly, not as quickly as a child. Whether you are a parent realizing that you are modeling passive-aggressive behaviors to your children, or whether you are an adult child from a passive-aggressive home, you need to begin to adopt and practice assertive style of communications. Express anger and frustration respectfully and try to view confrontation as a problem-solving tool. 

No doubt, there is a younger version of you lurking in the shadows somewhere taking an informal inventory. Rest assured, you can bet that your little sponge is eagerly waiting to try out their findings and put their new skills into practice. 

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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