Covert anger in your child: Why you should worry about passive aggressionWritten by Catherine Wilson
Two teens have just been grounded for the weekend. Fifteen-year-old Joel is furious. He jumps up from the table, yells a string of insults at his parents, then storms downstairs and out of the house, slamming the front door behind him.
Joel's sister, Karissa, on the other hand, acknowledges her parents' decision with little protest. By the end of the week however, Karissa's parents will be exasperated by her persistent irritability and a new "laziness" regarding chores.
Which teen has the more worrying problem with anger? Surprisingly, it's not the son.
Like her brother, the daughter is also seething with anger. But instead of openly displaying her frustration, she resorts to passive-aggressive behaviour. As is typical with passive aggression, her pent-up anger is expressed through indirect actions that are designed to wound, manipulate or obstruct others.
Psychiatrist Dr. Ross Campbell, author of How to Really Love Your Angry Child, warns that passive-aggressive behaviour in children is "the worst of all options" for venting anger, more worrying even than cursing, destroying property, or physical and verbal abuse.
For parents, that perspective can be hard to fathom. We see passive-aggressive responses from our kids so often. Can all-too-familiar behaviours like these really be that worrisome?
- Procrastination / dawdling over tasks / performing tasks poorly
- Feigning forgetfulness when given tasks
- Ignoring instructions entirely
- Negativity / pouting / a hostile or critical attitude
- Withdrawing / giving others "the silent treatment"
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Dr. Campbell gives some compelling explanations why we should be concerned:1
- Passive-aggressive behaviour is the very opposite of healthy expression of anger. Healthy expression of anger is open, honest and focused on resolving the issue. In contrast, passive aggression focuses instead on subversively "getting back" at the parent.
- As a child ages, passive-aggressive behaviour becomes increasingly sly and secretive, and more difficult for a parent to identify and correct.
- Left unchecked, passive-aggressive behaviour quickly becomes an entrenched and unconscious pattern of behaviour.
- Passive-aggressive behaviour is difficult for others to tolerate and live with, and will negatively impact the child’s most important relationships throughout his or her lifetime.
- A child who resorts to passive-aggressive expressions of anger will often seek to hurt their parents by hurting themselves. By the teen years, kids have plenty of means to hurt themselves in devastating ways, including school failure, rejecting parents’ faith and values, sexual promiscuity, drugs, crime and suicide.
What can parents do?
If you sense that passive-aggressive behaviour is becoming a habit in your school-age child, it’s wise to begin tackling this issue with a sense of urgency. According to Dr. Campbell, passive aggressive behaviour that persists past the age of 17 tends to persist for life (barring intensive intervention and the work of the Holy Spirit).2
Here are a few pointers to help you guide your child to better ways of managing anger:
First, know what you are aiming for – what healthy expression of anger looks like
Sadly, very many well-meaning parents actually fuel passive-aggressive behaviour in their children. Often, it’s because they don’t understand this essential truth: Expressing angry feelings is not wrong.
Writing in How to Really Love Your Child, Dr. Campbell laments:
"PA behaviour is very common. Why? Because most people do not understand anger or know what to do with it. They feel that anger is somehow wrong or sinful and should be ‘disciplined’ out of a child. This is a serious misunderstanding, because the feeling of anger is normal; every human being through the ages has felt anger, including Jesus, who became angry with those who misused the temple."
When we try to squelch angry feelings in our child – when we prohibit expressions of anger with commands like "Don’t make that face at me!" – the child’s angry feelings don’t evaporate. Instead, the child learns to stuff these "unacceptable" feelings deep inside. Although the anger may be out of sight, it’s certainly not out of mind, and it doesn’t stay buried for long. Eventually it will be expressed in sneaky and decidedly unhealthy ways, that is, as passive aggression.
In tackling anger in a child, our goal needs to be guidance, not censorship. We need to permit open expression of angry feelings as an essential starting point for carefully and deliberately teaching our child how to successfully manage their anger.
Young children need to be taught this truth repeatedly until they fully grasp it:
Expressing angry feelings is not wrong.
What is wrong, is to express anger in a way that hurts someone.
By the age of seven, a child is ready to learn specifically how to handle their anger maturely. Then, after many years of patient coaching, through trial and error, gains and losses, ideally a child will enter young adulthood consistently controlling their anger well. What does this look like? Here’s an acronym identifying some key traits of a mature response to anger (when triggered by the action of others):
A – Action – Take action on anger; first, take action to calm yourself, then tell the other person how you feel; don’t brood (Ephesians 4:26-27)
N – No going off topic – Name the action that caused the offense; don’t make it about someone’s character or bring in other issues or incidents (Colossians 3:8)
G – Give and seek forgiveness – Forgiving the other person, as Christ forgave you, is the only way you will find true peace (even if the other person is unrepentant) (Colossians 3:12-13)
E – End goal is resolution – It’s not about revenge, or to make the other person "feel bad" (Proverbs 12:18; Romans 12:17-19)
R – Remain Respectful and polite throughout the discussion (Proverbs 17:27)
Don’t let responses to anger become unconscious
From an early age, talk to your child about their anger. Keep your child consciously thinking about how they are feeling, and consequently, how they are acting on those feelings. Educate them about passive aggression: help them identify it in themself, and also in you!
Don’t be dissuaded by your teen’s intense moods. You’ll need to pick your opportunity skillfully, and be patient and loving in your approach, but don’t let anger that hurts others go undiscussed. Ask questions and try to draw out the real reasons and feelings behind angry actions. (Without help, your child may not understand their own motivations clearly.) Try some questions like these:3
- Are you angry at me? I don't want to upset you if I can help it. Can you tell me what you are upset about?
- Please tell me what you are upset about. We can talk about it later when we are both in a better mood, but right now I just need you to identify what you are upset about. Can you do that?(Building in time for reflection before discussion is a good strategy.)
- Your comment hurt my feelings. I think I've upset you somehow, and I'd like to know how I can make it right.
- You say you are not angry, but are you sure? Your behaviour suggests you are upset about something.
Help your child make gradual progress, without expecting too much too soon
Dr. Campbell recognizes 15 different levels of maturity with respect to managing anger. He summarizes those levels very helpfully in a diagram he calls "The Anger Ladder."4
The lowest "rung" of the ladder, as already suggested, is passive-aggressive anger. At the highest rung is mature management of anger. (See the acronym ANGER above).
Following an outburst of anger, Campbell suggests parents help their child "move up the ladder" by giving encouragement for what their child did right, then setting a slightly higher goal for next time – something that represents the next "rung" of the ladder.
Did your child scream and throw their cup at the wall? Look for the positive and commend them for progress. Perhaps they didn’t hurt feelings by saying "I hate you" this time.
Next, carefully consider what the next "rung" might be for your child. No child is going to leap from "throwing objects" (Campbell’s level 10) to exemplary "pleasant behaviour" (the top rung, or level 1). Choose something that’s actually attainable for them. For example, you might encourage your child not to throw something next time, but just use their words.
Maintaining a calm, pleasant demeanor in the face of your child’s angry tirade can require considerable restraint – especially if you’re as vexed with your child, in that instant, as they seem to be with you. Watch for these moments, because they are revealing. How you manage yourself in the situation – your measure of self-control – is a good indication of where you sit on the anger ladder, and what you are modelling for your child. Are you expecting your child to manage their anger with a level of maturity that you have not reached yourself?
Be discerning about passive aggression in teens
To complicate the task for parents, children will go through a phase in their early teens when parents should go lightly on minor passive aggressive behaviour. Dr. Campbell explains:
"At one life stage, passive aggression actually could be considered ‘normal.’ In early adolescence, ages 13 to 15, children will typically adopt these patterns for handling their feelings. As long as their behaviour hurts no one and causes no damage, we may consider this a ‘normal’ stage."5
Your child’s messy room, loud music, choice of clothes, dawdling and neglect of chores is likely no more than a mild form of teen rebellion, which is being expressed in passive aggression. Be relaxed about managing these "trace amounts of anger," advises Dr. Campbell; "keep it from being buried within" and you’ll avoid pushing your teen toward greater defiance.
1. In addition to his book, How to Really Love Your Angry Child (David C. Cook, 2004), Dr. Ross Campbell also devotes a chapter to passive aggression in his books How to Really Love Your Child (David C. Cook, 2004) and How to Really Love Your Teen (David C. Cook, 2004). Dr. Campbell’s five points about the dangers of passive aggression are drawn from these latter two books.
2. How to Really Love Your Teen p. 66.
3. Remember that your child’s anger often overlies deeper feelings you might never guess at – in teens that could be extreme sadness, hurt, frustration or anxiety. So be firm but always loving; you never know what deep wounds you may uncover.
4. Dr. Campbell’s Anger Ladder diagram is included in his books How to Really Love Your Angry Child and How to Really Love Your Teen. It’s also presented in The Five Love Languages of Children (Moody Publishers, 2012), which Dr. Campbell co-authored with Gary Chapman.
5. How to Really Love Your Angry Child p. 86-87.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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