Passive-Aggressive Child or Teen: 7 Things You Can Do When Your Child Shuts You Out

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Mom trying to talk with passive-aggressive teen

Passive-aggressive resistance is when kids learn to develop power over you by resisting you. It’s the opposite of aggression: instead of threatening or yelling at you, a passive-aggressive child simply doesn’t answer you. He ignores you.

The behavior looks like this:

Your teen just walks into the house, goes upstairs, and doesn’t say anything. When you call up to her room, she pretends not to hear you. She makes you come upstairs. All she gives you are one-word answers, or she pretends not to know anything at all. And she either stares at you or looks away.

This behavior is a way for your child or teen to gain power over you, and your son or daughter can be very good at it.

Passive-aggressive kids generally don’t know how to communicate well or solve the problems associated with anger, frustration, or anxiety. While some kids with behavior disorders get angry and act out, passive-aggressive kids get angry and act in.

Understand that I’m not talking about passive personalities. Instead, I’m talking about passive resistant behavior used to get back at you, to gain control or power, or to avoid responsibilities.

These are the kids who say, “I don’t want to do what Mom wants me to do, but I won’t confront her. I’ll just drag my feet until she leaves me alone.”

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Or your teen will blow you off until he frustrates you—and in his mind, if he annoys you and you start yelling, he wins. After all, you lost control, and he didn’t. Now he feels like he’s in control: you’re frustrated and you’re yelling, “Why aren’t you doing your homework? I told you three times!”

And he’s sitting there on the sofa, satisfied with the knowledge that he got to you. Sometimes he tells you to stop yelling and leaves you feeling frustrated and foolish.

By resisting you, your child is training you to give up and leave him alone. He’s training you to believe he can’t do it. He’s making you lower your expectations so you’ll expect less from him. And the truth is, passive resistance often works.

I think parents need to be on top of this kind of behavior. There’s a concept in the mental health field called learned helplessness which is very important for parents to understand.

Learned helplessness is where kids learn that if they act helpless, eventually someone else will do the job for them. They learn that if they resist long enough, you’ll do the dishes yourself. If they don’t answer you when you call them, you’ll eventually walk upstairs or take the garbage out. Or if they shut down when you ask them to mow the lawn, you’ll still give them $15 when they need it.

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Bit by bit, your expectations are lowered until you don’t have expectations anymore. But realize that once you do this, you’re only setting your child up for failure. Childhood and adolescence is the time in your child’s life when he needs to grow and learn.

Related content: Learned Helplessness: Are You Doing Too Much for Your Child?

If you let them off the hook with few responsibilities, they simply won’t gain the skills they need to move on to adulthood. Even though they may feel like they’re getting away with something, they’re not. Instead, they’re digging themselves into a hole that will be very hard for them to get out of.

Here are 7 ways I recommend to manage passive-aggressive behavior in your child.

1. Address the Behavior and Set Expectations

If you think your child is being passive-aggressive because he gets angry and can’t voice his feelings, invite him to talk about those things. Just say:

“If you’re angry about something, it’s safe to talk to me.”

I think “safe” is an important word here. Say:

“It’s okay if you feel angry or afraid, but continuing this behavior won’t solve the problem. Talk to me. I’ll try to understand. But I expect you to do the work whether you’re angry or not. Being angry is no excuse.”

Parents can also train kids by directly stating what you see happening:

“I think you’re not loading the dishwasher because you’re angry that I wouldn’t let you stay out late last night. And I want you to know that I understand that—but it’s not a justification. You still have to do the dishes. And if they’re not done by eight o’clock, I’m taking the keyboard out of your room.”

Remember, expectations have to remain clear. Whatever happens, your child has to learn how to perform, how to produce, and how to survive in life—that’s all there is to it.

Certainly, we want to rule out things like depression or other factors that might be contributing to this behavior. If you think there are physiological causes for your child’s behavior, have him assessed by a trained medical professional.

2. Use Consequences and Set Time Limits

Sit down and talk with your child when things are calm and going well. Tell him straight out what you see happening: that he’s not producing enough, striving enough, or pushing himself enough. Then tell him what the consequences will be from now on.

Inform him that you’re going to set time limits on what has to be done, and if he doesn’t meet that time limit, then he’s going to lose his phone or computer until it’s done.

Certainly, it’s up to parents to be reasonable about the time frame. You can even say:

“I want the basement cleaned by Monday. And if not, you’re losing your phone till it’s done.”

So you don’t have to give your child tight time frames. I think it’s better to give him choices. But regardless, he needs to be held accountable if he doesn’t get it done within a certain time.

Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work

3. Use Rewards

You also want to build in rewards for your child for getting things done early. Train your child that there’s a reward for putting in the effort to get a task done early.

So just like there’s a reward for kids when they don’t act out, there’s a reward for your child when he doesn’t act in. Meeting his timelines would be one of the goals.

For example, if he has all his homework done the night before, finishes breakfast without dawdling, gets ready for school and gets to the bus on time in the morning, he gets a reward. You might let him stay up a half an hour later. In this way, you’re training and motivating him to do things on time.

Related content: EP Downloadable Behavior Charts to Use with Your Child

4. Give Your Child “Hurdle Help”

Understand that most kids will drag their feet if they don’t understand their homework or if it looks too big for them. That may be passive resistance, but it’s passive resistance because they’re afraid of something or they’re frustrated. I believe that the parenting roles of teacher and coach are vital in this situation because you want to help your child learn why this is happening, and then coach him to be more organized.

In The Total Transformation® program, there’s something I call “hurdle help.” When your child feels stuck, step in and help your child over the first couple of hurdles just to get him going. But don’t do the work for him.

For example, if it’s an English assignment, ask him some questions about what he’s writing about. You might give him a sentence to begin the project.

Again, I’m not suggesting you do the assignment for him, but rather you get him over the first hurdle and let him take it from there. All kids need a little boost from time to time to get started.

5. Teach Your Child to Compartmentalize Tasks

When your child thinks an assignment or task is too big, you can help him as a parent by teaching him how to compartmentalize tasks. You can say:

“Let’s get this much done tonight.”

Or say:

“Let’s get this much of the project done this week.”

A good way to handle this is to ask your child:

“How much do you think you can get done tonight? How much do you think you can get done this week?”

That way, you’re teaching him how to plan. If he comes back with too little, you need to say:

“No, I don’t think that’s enough. I think you’re selling yourself short. Why don’t you try to do this much instead?”

If he gives you an amount that sounds too big, just say:

“That sounds like an awful lot to me. It may not be realistic. Let’s see how much you get done in an hour and then reevaluate it.”

So you help him learn how to moderate himself and get organized.

6. Minimize Distractions

Keep the bedroom door open and the music off when your child is doing schoolwork. Check on him periodically to make sure he’s doing the work and not getting distracted. Identify and reduce any distractions. If you can’t monitor him effectively in his room then have him do his work downstairs.

The idea is that your child should understand that he has to perform whether he’s angry or not. I don’t care if his anger is carried out in a resistant way or in an aggressive way—he’s still responsible for it.

7. Be Understanding—And Be Firm

When kids use passive-aggressive behavior to get away with not following through on their responsibilities, I believe you need to be very firm with them.

At the same time, you want to have an open mind and be objective. When you’re angry and frustrated by your child’s behavior, remind yourself that it’s only annoying behavior—even if he seems like a monster at that moment.

Remember, passive-aggressive behavior is an ineffective coping skill. For a child to stop using it, they have to learn an effective coping skill with which to replace it.

Coping skills will not be abandoned because they’re ineffective unless a more healthy coping skill is learned to replace it.

Related content: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”

Conclusion

Too much excuse-making has come into our culture, and too many people have been allowed to get away with not keeping up with their responsibilities.

I think that very clearly, the message has to be:

“You have to learn to take care of yourself and meet your responsibilities. You’re accountable.”

Do we want to be understanding? Yes.

Do parents need extra training for kids like this? Often they do.

Nevertheless, the responsibility is ultimately on the child to grow up and learn how to live in our society—and on the parents to teach him how to do it.

Related content: 6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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