How Passive Aggressive Parents Affect Children

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  • 0:04 What Is Passive Aggression
  • 1:50 Example
  • 3:19 Effects on Children
  • 4:14 Better Ways
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson looks into the ways passive-aggressive parenting can affect children. Topics include a description of passive aggression, examples, effects, and alternative ways to communicate.

What Is Passive Aggression

You may be familiar with passive-aggressive behavior, such as having someone give you the cold shoulder, ''forgetting'' to invite you to something, and many other subtly cruel injuries which are defined more by their inaction than being any kind of active attack. This behavior is a form of emotional abuse and psychological violence. The impact of passive aggression on loved ones is deeply wounding, but when the impacted loved one is a child, the effects are even more pronounced.

For the person receiving a passive-aggressive attack, it causes confusion, resentment, and pain, especially when the behavior is ongoing. The person perpetrating the behavior also suffers, as their behavior keeps loved ones at a distance and poisons the relationships closest to them. For such behaviors to have an effect, the victim of an attack must be someone engaged in some type of relationship, whether family, friend, classmate, or coworker.

Make no mistake, repeated use of passive-aggressive behavior is a mental disorder described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) as ''a pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.'' Both men and women can exhibit these behaviors. When children express passive-aggressive attacks, it is often a learned behavior from at least one parent demonstrating these patterns. It is also linked to an unhealthy suppression of anger rather than the productive communication of problems and frustration.


Identifying passive-aggressive behavior in oneself is a vital part of eliminating them and opening channels of healthy communication. Identifying it in others can also help you understand ongoing problems and begin steps to free yourself from psychological abuse. It is essential to realize that these behaviors are extremely hostile and harder to combat, even though they are indirectly aggressive. Direct abuse can be much easier to identify and use as evidence to seek help. Here are three questions to help identify passive-aggressive behavior in yourself or someone you know:

  1. After a disagreement, do you or someone close to you withhold emotional connection, refuse to communicate, or physically avoid interacting?
  2. Do you or someone close to you frequently communicate using sarcasm, compliments that include deep criticism, or make a habit of constantly criticizing friends and loved ones?
  3. Do you or someone you know show displeasure by sulking, procrastinating or failing to do tasks for those they are upset with, or frequently run late regarding plans with someone they harbor hostility toward?

These are all part of a passive-aggressive personality disorder, and while none of these behaviors cause physical harm, they can deeply harm people psychologically. For children, growing up in a passive-aggressive household can cause extensive damage that may last a lifetime.

Effects on Children

The effects of passive-aggressive behavior on children, whether they watch parents use it on one another or the parents use it on the children, often yield the same detrimental results. Primarily, the child emulates the behavior and grows up to exhibit passive-aggressive personality disorder as well. This, in turn, leads to difficulty establishing close friendships and harms romantic relationships later in life. They express their anger is unhealthy ways, bottling it up and not processing their feelings and experiences.

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