How Your Passive Aggressive Parent Negatively Impacted Your Life

Updated on October 7, 2019
letstalkabouteduc profile image

Having grown up with a passive aggressive mother, Ms. Meyers struggled to communicate effectively and became determined to improve.

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 served 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. It came out of her, though, 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 

        5 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 

        5 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 

        5 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 

        5 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 

        7 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 

        7 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 

        11 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


        11 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 

        11 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 

        11 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 

        14 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 

        14 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 

        14 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


        14 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 

        15 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 

        15 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 

        15 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


        15 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 

        16 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


        16 months ago from Indonesia

        I like this

      • NICHOLE SEGRUE profile image

        Nichole Segrue 

        19 months ago from Lakewood

        Very introspective!

      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        20 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 

        20 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 

        20 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 

        20 months ago from Canada

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

      • techygran profile image


        20 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 

        20 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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