How to Recover From a Passive Aggressive Parent

Updated on December 7, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Having grown up with a passive aggressive mother, Ms. Meyers realized its legacy and vowed to become a better, more direct communicator.

The adult children of passive aggressive parents may struggle with communicating directly, trusting others, and expressing anger.
The adult children of passive aggressive parents may struggle with communicating directly, trusting others, and expressing anger. | Source

The Legacy of a Passive Aggressive Parent

  • Do you loath conflict and go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it?
  • Do you get turned off by assertive people, thinking they're too loud and forward?
  • Do you have a string of failed relationships behind you caused by your weak communication skills?
  • Do you distrust people, thinking they're gossiping behind your back?
  • Do you have trouble expressing your emotions, especially anger?

If you're nodding your head consistently, you may be like me—the child of a passive aggressive parent. Growing up in a home where conflicts were handled indirectly (or not at all) may have left you ill-equipped to deal with the world as an adult.

Children of Passive Aggressive Parents Often Struggle in These 3 Areas:

1. Communicating directly

2. Trusting others

3. Expressing anger

Passive Aggressive Behavior and Tomato Soup

When my 80-year-old mother was visiting, I asked if she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup (one of my favorite combinations on a cold day). She replied "yes." After finishing the meal, she then explained that tomato is her least favorite of all soups and that she only finished the bowl as not to offend me.

When my husband arrived home from work, she told him the story of how I made her tomato soup and she doesn't even like it. Then, when my teenage sons entered the room, you told the tale once again. Without a doubt, I knew she would repeat this anecdote to everybody back at her retirement community. As with so many of her accounts throughout the years, she would come out looking like a martyr and me the bad guy.

If this kind of interaction with a parent sounds familiar, you may have a mom or dad who's passive aggressive. Their behavior has influenced you in many negative ways that you may not even realize. It's not too late, though, to become aware of its impact on your life and change course like I did.

What Are Passive Aggressive Behaviors?

Passive aggressive folks show hostility indirectly rather than overtly. They avoid people they don't like, procrastinate over tasks that they don't want to do, and ignore requests for favors. They arrive late to events they don't wish to attend and gossip rather than discuss issues face to face. We all do these behaviors from time to time. Passive aggressive folks, though, do them often as a way to avoid open and direct communication.This makes it very hard to have a relationship with them.

1. Communicating Directly

My parents never yelled or argued with one another when I was growing up, but ours was anything but a happy home. There was always an undercurrent of hostility and frustration conveyed by my mother's deafening silence. When mad with my father, she'd take off in the car and drive around for hours before returning to our house. She'd then give the silent treatment for a couple of days to punish him.

My siblings and I grew up thinking that this was normal husband-wife behavior. Years later as a newlywed, I slipped into my mother's silent treatment routine instead of expressing my anger and frustration to my husband. If I wanted to stay married, though, I had to stop this childish behavior and start communicating directly like a mature adult.

When you become more confident about your communication skills, passive aggressive behaviors become unnecessary.
When you become more confident about your communication skills, passive aggressive behaviors become unnecessary. | Source

Some suggest that passive-aggressive behavior may stem from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged or not allowed. People may feel that they cannot express their real feelings more openly, so they may instead find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration.

— Kendra Cherry, author of "Everything Psychology Book"

How to Change Course?

When we give the silent treatment, pout, or retreat, it shows that we suffer from low self-esteem just like our passive aggressive parents. We lack the confidence to express our emotions and articulate our thoughts. We worry that our "ugly" feelings will cause us to be disliked and rejected. We, therefore, avoid direct communication and retreat to childish behaviors.

I learned how to turn this around by reading 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. This illuminating book by Andrea Brandt, a long-time psychotherapist, helps us understand how our parent's indirect hostility shaped our communication style. Moreover, it gives us advice on how to become stronger speakers. Dr. Brandt defines passive aggressiveness as "a coping mechanism people use when they perceive themselves to be powerless." Therefore, to liberate ourselves from these behaviors, we must take charge and talk in a forthright manner.

2. Trusting Others

I grew up in a home with a gossipy mother who badmouthed family members, friends, and neighbors. She frequently targeted my older sister, complaining that she was a lousy housekeeper, a permissive parent, and a neglectful wife. As a result of her rants against my sister and others, I developed a deep distrust of people. I became paranoid that folks were talking behind my back, making harsh judgments, and being unkind.

My passive aggressive mother gossiped because she was too scared to speak bluntly and then deal with the fallout. Instead of expressing her concerns to my sister, she talked behind her back. While this made her feel better at the moment, it didn't solve the problem. It was also poor role modelling and made me suspicious and cynical of others.

How to Change Course?

When passive aggressive folks gossip, they're using you instead of dealing with the problem directly. Moreover, they're insulting your integrity by thinking that you have low character and are open to such talk. They're hurting you in the long-run by making you less trusting. That's why it's essential to your own well-being to shut it down immediately.

Albert J. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, recommends that “whenever gossips say something negative about someone, say something positive.” I use his advice with my mother and find it quite effective. When she starts to criticize my sister, I respond with something kind and supportive. I'll say, for example, “She's a devoted mother who does so many fun activities with her kids” or “She's juggling so much right now with work and night classes.” My affirmative comments let my mother know that I'm closed off to any negativity and gossip.

This video expains how gossip is a passive aggressive behavior, a betrayal, and a way to feel superior

3. Expressing Anger

I grew up in a home where my dad often displayed anger, but my mom never did. I learned from watching and listening to her that it was a taboo emotion, especially for females. It was ugly, unladylike, and to be avoided at all cost.

Because angry feelings can't be bottled up forever, though, they emerged in many covert ways. She used passive aggressive behaviors such as sarcasm, the silent treatment, avoidance, and sulking. When I became an adult, I adopted these as well because I thought they were safe and appropriate for a woman.

My inability to express my anger came to a dangerous climax, though, when my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. My suppressed rage finally caught up with me, and I wound up in counselling and put on anti-depressants. My therapist said that depression is anger turned inward. I had stuffed my rage for so long that I had fallen into a deep despair.

Anger has many positive qualities: It tells us when something is wrong, it can help you in terms of getting you to focus, evaluate your values and goals and strengthen your relationships and connections.

— Andrea Brandt, therapist and author of "Mindful Anger: The Emotional Path to Freedom"

How to Change Course?

Looking back at that time now, I realize that my son's diagnosis was just a symptom of a much bigger problem. I knew I had to come to terms with all my feelings, especially anger. and learn to express them in a timely and constructive manner. When I'm mad now, I deal with it by talking, exercising, and writing in my journal. I've learned how destructive passive aggressive behaviors can be to my health—physically and emotionally—and I'm never going down that road again.

Did you grow up with a passive aggressive parent?

If so, how do you best deal with that legacy?

See results

Questions & Answers

© 2018 McKenna Meyers

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 days ago

      As I start to dread my 83-year-old mother's upcoming visit, I definitely empathize with you. I always go into it with the best of intentions: to stay calm, to take care of myself, and to not let her get to me. Inevitably, though, I lose my patience at some time point because she repeats constantly and doesn't seem to absorb anything I say. You're correct that it's a combination of passive aggressiveness, old age, and short-term memory loss. It's unlikely that a passive aggressive person will change so it's best to change yourself. Whether it's finding a different place to live, putting a lock on your bedroom door, or forming an alliance with your dad, I hope that you'll find some workable solutions. This is no way for you to live. Take care!

    • profile image

      RoothieII 

      10 days ago

      Commenting here because there is no one else I want to tell, but I've got to vent. I moved into my elderly parents' home three years ago and I'm getting really annoyed having to deal with my mom's passive aggression. For example, when I moved in, I told her that I eat dinner at 8:00 pm and would not be eating dinner with them at 5:30. I just realized that I've been with them now for three years and she has literally asked me over 1,000 times, "Will you be eating dinner with us tonight?" I've just been saying "No, I'll be dining at 8:00 pm." She is a little senile, so I was patiently answering her every night, but I've come to realize that she knows when I eat and that her question is just a form of harassment because she is angry that I don't eat with her. I'm going to confront her on this tonight and let her know that I know SHE KNOWS I won't be dining at 5:30 and she needs to finally accept that. Also, that her behavior is actually driving me away, and making it less likely that I will want to dine with her. She is 93, and I will probably just have to patiently put up with it. But I'm going to be direct with her and hopefully it will improve our relationship. I'm very introverted and she's very extroverted and needs to have people around her all the time. She also lacks boundaries- knocking on the bathroom door, walking into my room without waiting for me to say it's okay, etc. so it's tough for me to get time to myself. I knew it would be difficult living with her and I knew I would have to suffer this kind of stuff. Maybe I don't have to suffer so much. Maybe being direct will help.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      8 months ago

      Thanks so much, Georgene. Understanding my family of origin has helped me understand myself, find peace, and strive to be better.

    • GeorgeneMBramlage profile image

      Georgene Moizuk Bramlage 

      8 months ago from southwestern Virginia

      Very well done article. I commend you for all the hard work you've put into your relationships and enjoying life.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      8 months ago

      Thanks for your kind words, Pamela. I, too, grew up in a home where we couldn't express our emotions and voice our opinions. When I got out in the real world, I couldn't even articulate what I thought. Perhaps, that's why I turned to writing! Now I "feel the feels" as people say today because I know it's key to my well-being. It doesn't come naturally, though, and I can easily revert to that little girl who bottled up everything and became depressed. People often joke about passive-aggressive behaviors and minimize them, but they can be so destructive in our lives and relationships.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 months ago from Sunny Florida

      This is such a thorough, well-written article about passive aggressive behavior. I relate to some parts of this, not the gossip but the doing anything to avoid conflict. I have worked hard over the years to express my feelings and not just be silent.

      At my house growing up we better not have an opinion about anything that disagreed with their views. I just shut up about anything that would result in me being shamed by them. Actually, my mother changed for the better over the years and we became very close. That is not especially true for my sister and I unfortunately.

      Thank you for sharing such valuable information. We keep learning until we die I think.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      10 months ago

      Doris, I know how frustrating it is to deal with passive aggressive individuals and can't imagine being married to one. It sounds, though, like you're handling it well. My grandmother was an alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver when my mom was 8. After her death, my mom was sent to a boarding school and stayed there until she graduated from high school. Her passive aggressive ways stem from feeling rejected by her mom and the resulting damage to her self-esteem. During her time at boarding school, she shut down emotionally because she had no family to hear her anguish. Today, her passive aggressive behaviors allow her to express hostility but in a seemingly "nice" way. Like your husband, there's no way she would ever change because her passive aggressive ways are too deeply ingrained. Best to you!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      10 months ago from Beautiful South

      McKenna, your article is very interesting and on the spot. I did not have passive aggressive parents. They were both very capable of speaking their mind. However, a few years back, I realized that I have a passive aggressive husband. I have explained to him how hard that makes life for me, but he is as immovable as the blob. In fact, I've told him so. I've also come to the conclusion that he has Asberger's Syndrome. He was diagnosed as dyslexic as a child and trained to manage it, but back then, they didn't know much, if anything, about autism or Asberber's.

      Which brings up a question. I wonder what kind of life your mother had to deal with to make her PA. You mentioned your autistic son. Could it be possible that autism runs in your family, and your mother dealt with an autistic family member in the only way she knew how? I used to really fight back anger dealing with my husband's PA, but now I let it all hang out and put his pouting and PA right back on him. I see no reason to take it.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      14 months ago

      Paula, what a beautiful and uplifting response to my article! I'm so pleased it helped you recall those memories of your wonderful straight-talking family. You were truly lucky to have them, and I know they loved you dearly. Thanks for sharing.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 

      14 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      McKenna....a very thorough and interesting article on the topic of passive-aggresive family traits. I'm happy to say I was able to respond a resounding "No," to each of your opening questions.

      My family was the same Mom & Dad forever and one older sister....(quite sadly, they have all passed.) In our home, everyone spoke their mind, clearly & respectfully & always. We said what we meant and meant what we said. Called a spade, a spade and during any sort of conflict, we discussed things in rational, open and honest ways. My sister and & got along famously, had a really close bond throughout our lives. Our mother was the "Chief!" Dad was a multi-talented & extremely comedic man.....he usually acted as the equalizer. There was zero passive-aggresive behavior/attitude. It would not have been tolerated and simply wasn't necessary.

      We had our normal/healthy ups & downs but for the most part, we were a very active, happy and productive crew!

      I'm well aware how blessed we were and am forever grateful for my upbringing, my family and the fabulous memories I have and hold tightly always. Thanks for helping me to recall them!! Peace, Paula

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      14 months ago

      I'm glad it was helpful, Audrey. After writing this article, I catch myself falling into passive-aggressive behaviors. Luckily, I now stop myself and communicate directly.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      14 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Thanks for this informative article. I've learned so much through reading this hub. I now recognize this type of disorder in a few people I know. Very helpful!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      16 months ago

      Thanks, Annie, for sharing your story about your mother. My heart goes out to you. When I read that gossiping is a passive-aggressive behavior, it opened my eyes. My mother's gossiping has hurt so many relationships within our immediate and extended family. Now I see that she gossiped to feel better about herself and superior to others. I'd never tell her anything that I wouldn't want everyone else to know, which is quite sad and makes our relationship rather superficial. But that's the way it goes. Stay strong!

    • Deb Vesco Roberts profile image

      Debra Roberts 

      16 months ago from Ohio

      Many of your points really hit home with me and my dysfunctional relationship with my mother, who is narcissistic and passive aggressive, a terrible combination. I don't ever recall a visit with her where she wasn't gossiping about her church friends, her neighbors, our family, or my younger sister. I'll never forget when my Aunt Shirley waltzed into my son's high school graduation party and confronted me in front of everyone about my divorce (of 2 years prior) spewing a bunch of b.s. that my mother has concocted in her own mind (as she won't listen to the truth from me), and what she has told all of our extended family, who have since decided they want nothing to do with me. It was the most humiliating day of my life and the only thing that I can remember about my fourth child's special day. How a mother can treat her own adult child with such hate and disapproval is beyond me. To this day I don't understand how my father lived with her. I could not wait to get away. Anyways, great read and it's always refreshing to know that we are not alone; although I'd never want this nonsense for anyone.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      16 months ago

      You're so right, Swati. When the holidays approach, I hear many people worry and complain about the up-coming family get-togethers. I'm imaging their trepidation is caused by a passive-aggressive family member. In our family, my mother has gossiped and bad-mouthed everyone throughout the year so when we gather everyone feels awkward and defensive. In her mind, though, she never gossips; she just “relates information from one person to another!” Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • aspiring soul profile image

      Swati 

      17 months ago from India

      This happens in almost everyone's family. That one passive- aggressive person always makes things complex. The worst part is no one can really do anything about it. As they don't hurt us directly, we also can't do anything about it. It's a clever plan to make oneself superior to others.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      17 months ago

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and kind words, Tim. I never recognized my mother's passive-aggressive behavior until my teenage son took a psychology class at high school and pointed it out to me. Her behavior definitely had caused problems in my life with depression and anxiety. As you wrote, my awareness of passive-aggressive behaviors has led me to despise them. Straight talk is what I crave!

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      17 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you for an interesting article on your experience with passive aggressive individuals in your family. This type of behavior can be dangerous, leading to long-term physical health issues as well as drug abuse and severe psychological problems. You did an excellent job of explosing these behaviors for what they are in your article.

      Not surprisingly, some research suggest that after a person has dealt with passive agressive tendencies or people with these behaviors, with awareness, they tend to prefer more assertive people.

      You were right on the money with that aspect of human patterns of interaction.

      Thank you again.

      Much respect,

      Sincerely,

      Tim

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      17 months ago

      Stella, your comments perfectly articulate the feelings of someone who's fed up with a passive-aggressive relative and can't take it any more. I can relate to your raw pain and so can many others. Passive-aggressive relatives are exhausting, exasperating, and damaging to our mental and emotional well-being. Sometimes limiting or eliminating contact with them is the only solution.

      Years ago when my mother was visiting, I left her in charge of my two preschoolers while I went to the market. When I returned, she was sitting on the sofa with my two boys watching the movie, “Silence of the Lambs” (if you don't know, it's about a serial killer who eats his victims). When I got frustrated and said, “Mom, you can't watch that with little kids,” she feigned ignorance in a classic passive-aggressive way, saying “I didn't know I shouldn't do that.” However, as the mother of four grown children and a former elementary school teacher, she definitely knew better. I never left my kids alone with her again and, perhaps, that was her goal all along.

      Limiting my contact with her has been the best thing for me, my marriage, and my children. She has no interest in examining her behavior and changing it so putting distance between us is what works. My older son, who recently took a psychology class in high school, labeled his grandmother's behavior as passive-aggressive during our last get-together. Even though I had never spoken to him about this topic, he was able to see it for what it was with such ease and objectivity. I wish I could have done that when I was growing up with her instead of being a victim of it!

      Best of luck to you as you move forward. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      Stella 

      17 months ago

      I don't want to understand this behavior to help accept the aggressors- the PA's. I want to understand this behavior to shut them down and shut them out.

      Understanding- why do supreme manipulators deserve understanding? Especially when they will not change . Who cares? Passive Aggressive manipulators are selfish assholes. Who wants to understand them? Not me .I spent 6 years trying to salvage a relationship with my sister. It was not worth it and made it worse. I am not her punching bag anymore. I don't hate her.I would still help her if she needed help. But I won't see her anymore and let her spin her web. She will have to find another target . I am done.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      19 months ago

      Thanks. I think the vast majority of us have experiences dealing with passive-aggressive types in our families, among friends, or at work. They're highly resistant to change, but we can recognize their behavior, deal with it, and not fall victim to it. I grew up with a mom who gossiped and talked behind people's backs. I now clearly see that as passive-aggressive, don't put up with it, and loath it. It makes me more determined to have direct communication with people.

    • chairunnisssss profile image

      CHAIRUNNISA 

      19 months ago from Indonesia

      I like this

    • NICHOLE SEGRUE profile image

      Nichole Segrue 

      21 months ago from Lakewood

      Very introspective!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      23 months ago

      Thanks for reading, Lydia. I think we all have passive aggressive family members so we can all relate to the struggles.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      23 months ago

      Thanks, Cynthia. Passive aggressive behavior is so common in families. It was so deeply embedded in mine that we all did it and considered it polite. But, it's really just the opposite. I can never have a deep, honest conversation with my mom because she finds the directness offensive. She'd rather have me gossip behind her back! The book is a terrific one -- easy to read and relate to your own life.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      23 months ago

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughtful comments, Vladimir. It sounds like you've been aware and intentional every step of your journey. I've just gotten there recently. Now I want to live each day to the fullest and appreciate the simple things. You're a good example of someone who refused to let his family define him. That took a lot of strength, insight, and character.

    • Zola Mars profile image

      Lydia Workman 

      23 months ago from Canada

      Thank you for writing about your experiences with passive aggressive family members.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia Zirkwitz 

      23 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Excellent insights into what I recognize as a common, frustrating and preferred disfunctional method of interacting in my own extended family.

      I also appreciate your review of a book that has helped you to overcome some of your own passive-aggressive ways of dealing with others. I will have to read that myself! Good job!

      All the best, Cynthia

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 

      23 months ago from Canada

      McKenna---I enjoyed reading your article. Although I couldn't relate to passive aggressiveness as a characteristic of my old family---whenever I think of them, an expression by the late British comedian Benny Hill comes to mind: "What a lovely bunch of coconuts".

      So, I did have my share of recovering from the toxic aspects of that ambient, but "I did it my way", as the title of the old hit song says.

      About the time of my puberty I read my first book in psychology. I don't know if it helped much, but it did ignite my thinking processes about my family and my place in it.

      Maybe due to my innate calm temperament, I intuitively stopped taking them seriously, as the first step of that recovery. They were to live their own life according to their mindsets, and I was to follow my own bliss, as even in those years I developed a taste for feeling detached from human stupidity and decided for myself what intimate reality I was going to have.

      All in all, I didn't let them push my emotional buttons. I practiced yoga, meditation, I drifted, I read a mountain of books, played guitar and sang like Pat Boone. Couldn't care less that my family chose the path of a soap opera.

      There are easy ways, McKenna, I always believed in that. Still do.

      However, allow me to congratulate you on your constructive turn around in life. It's so heart-filling to read stories like that with such winning outcomes. All the best to you. - Val

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