How Your Passive Aggressive Parent Negatively Impacted Your Life and How to Change Course

Updated on September 24, 2018
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Having grown up with a passive aggressive mother, I struggled to communicate effectively and became determined to change it.

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 mistrust people because you think 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 issues were handled indirectly (or not at all) may have left you ill-equipped to deal with the world as an adult.

Your passive aggressive parent avoided direct communication. As a result, you may find it hard to open up, be honest, and sustain a long-term relationship.
Your passive aggressive parent avoided direct communication. As a result, you may find it hard to open up, be honest, and sustain a long-term relationship. | Source

Passive Aggressive Behavior and Tomato Soup

One day during my 80-year-old mother's visit I asked if she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for lunch (one of my favorite combinations on a cold day), and she said yes. After eating the meal, she then commented on how tomato is her least favorite of all soups. She doesn't like it at all, she continued, but ate it any way so she wouldn't offend me. When my husband came home from work, she proceeded to told him the story of how I made her tomato soup and she doesn't even like it. Then, when my teenage sons arrived home from school (you guessed it), you told the tale of the dreaded tomato soup once again.

Knowing this pattern all to well, I knew she would repeat this anecdote to everybody back home in her retirement community. I would be turned into the horrible daughter who serves her long-suffering mother soup she doesn't like. As with so many of my mother's recollections throughout the decades, she would make me the perpetrator and herself the martyr.

If this kind of interaction with a parent sounds familiar, you may have a mom or dad who's passive aggressive. Without realizing it, their behavior has influenced you in a negative way. It's not too late, though, for you to become aware of its impact on your life and change course like I did.

What Are Passive Aggressive Behaviors?

A passive aggressive person shows hostility indirectly rather than overtly. They avoid people they don't like, procrastinate over tasks they don't want to do, ignore requests for favors, arrive late to events they don't want to attend, and gossip about people rather than discussing issues face to face. We all do these behaviors from time to time. Passive aggressive people, though, do them often as a way to avoid open and direct communication, making it hard to have relationships with them.

Do You Use the Silent Treatment Instead of Expressing Your Emotions?

My parents never yelled, argued, or even disagreed 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 dad, she'd take off in her car and drive around for hours before coming home. This was then followed by a couple days of the silent treatment to teach my dad a lesson.

My siblings and I grew up thinking this was a normal dynamic between a husband and wife and how problems got handled in a marriage. Years later when I was a newlywed, I slipped into my mother's pattern and started giving my husband the silent treatment instead of expressing my anger and frustration. If I wanted to stay married, though, I knew I had to stop this childish behavior and start acting like a grownup.

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, and retreat, we reveal that we have low self-esteem just as our passive aggressive parents did. We lack the confidence to express our feelings and articulate our thoughts. We worry that our "ugly" emotions will cause us to be disliked and rejected. We, therefore, avoid direct interaction and retreat into childish behaviors.

Andrea Brandt, a therapist and author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, says some women avoid conflict because we can't deal with intense feelings, especially anger. Once I was aware of why I used the silent treatment, I started embracing my emotions by writing them down in a journal, talking about them, and dealing with them through exercise, meditation, and prayer. After decades of ignoring my inner-world, I became a much happier and healthier person and my relationships grew stronger. I worked hard to improve my communication skills and people began to compliment me at work for my straightforward no-nonsense style.

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

Do You Distrust People, Thinking They're Gossiping About You?

I grew up in a home where my mother gossiped and badmouthed people all the time, especially our family members, neighbors, and friends. As a teenager, I listened as she told tales about my older sister—how messy her house was, how her kids wore wrinkled clothes, and how she neglected her husband. I enjoyed listening as it made me feel like her confidant and favored child, superior to my sister. Unfortunately, growing up with a passive aggressive parent who gossiped left a destructive legacy that's been hard for me to shake all these years later. I worry that other people are talking behind my back, making harsh judgments about me, and being unkind.

My mother gossiped to me because she was upset about my sister's poor housekeeping, thinking it reflected badly on her. Instead of dealing with her concerns in a direct manner by discussing them with my sister, she talked about my sister to me. While this made my passive aggressive mom temporarily feel better, it did nothing to solve the problem. It also made me paranoid that my mom was badmouthing me to my sister as well as other people. I often think my mother's gossiping is to blame for my sister and me never having a close relationship .

How to Change Course?

It's important to realize that you're being used when people gossip to you. Don't think it's flattering as I once did. It's actually insulting that someone would think you're open to listening. To set things straight, you should shut it down firmly but politely.

Albert J. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, recommends “whenever gossips say something negative about someone, say something positive.” I have found this piece of advice extremely useful with my mother. When she starts to gossip and criticize my sister, I'll immediately cut in and state: “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.” Realizing she has no audience for the gossiping and bad mouthing, my mom has no other option than to abandon it.

Gossiping Is a Passive Aggressive Behavior, a Betrayal, and a Way to Feel Superior

Do You Struggle With Expressing Anger?

I grew up in an uptight, conservative home where feelings were tightly constrained, especially anger. I learned from watching and listening to my mother that this was a taboo emotion, especially for females—ugly, unladylike, and just bad. While it's a normal and natural feeling that we all experience, it was treated like anything but in my family. While my dad showed it on a regular basis, my mom never did. But it came out of her in covert ways—passive aggressive behaviors that I adopted such as sarcasm, the silent treatment, avoidance, and sulking.

My inability to deal with anger came to a dangerous climax when my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. I had kept my emotions in check for so many years, but now my fury became all-consuming. I was angry at God for letting it happen. I was angry at my mother for not helping my son and me. I was angry at the doctors, therapists, and teachers who only saw the deficits in my boy and not his value.

My inability to deal effectively with my anger ultimately led to a crash, sending me into therapy and getting me put on anti-depressants. My therapist said that depression was anger turned inward, and that was certainly true in my case. I had stuffed that emotion for so long, causing me to spiral downward into a deep despair that I couldn't overcome without a lot of help.

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 and learn to express them in a timely and constructive manner. When I'm mad now, I let it out and 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

I Love This Book and You Will, Too!

The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online
The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online

Reading this book was worth every minute of my time. It brilliantly illuminated my childhood, helping me see how my family's passive aggressive behaviors shaped my life. Without even realizing it, I had incorporated so many of them into my repertoire, causing me to struggle in relationships, become depressed, and often feel lonely. When I read this book, it all became clear to me, and I was finally able to break free of my passive aggressive tendencies and become more direct and well-spoken. Now people compliment me on my communication style. I'm much happier, more confident, and welcome each day with a new-found enthusiasm.


Questions & Answers

    © 2018 McKenna Meyers


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      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        2 months ago from Bend, OR

        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 

        2 months ago from United States

        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 

        2 months ago from Bend, OR

        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


        2 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 

        3 months ago from Bend, OR

        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 

        3 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,



      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        3 months ago from Bend, OR

        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


        3 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 

        4 months ago from Bend, OR

        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


        4 months ago from Indonesia

        I like this

      • NICHOLE SEGRUE profile image

        Nichole Segrue 

        6 months ago from Lakewood

        Very introspective!

      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        8 months ago from Bend, OR

        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 

        8 months ago from Bend, OR

        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 

        8 months ago from Bend, OR

        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 

        8 months ago from Canada

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

      • techygran profile image


        8 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 

        8 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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