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Passive-aggressive children a challenge for parents

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Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 12:00 am

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times!"

"I know you're not stupid!"

"Why do you keep forgetting your chores?"

Sound familiar?

If so, you may be the parent or teacher of a passive-aggressive child — a "close relative," so to speak, of the oppositional youngster discussed in my last column.

Characteristics: Both kids show defiance toward authority. The primary difference is that the oppositional child openly confronts parents and teachers, while the passive-aggressive child is more manipulative and underhanded.

Both resist taking responsibility for personal behavior. They join forces in resisting compliance toward adult demands. Both want to make their own decisions about issues that affect their lives.

With the passive-aggressive child, there is distrust, distaste and sometimes outright dislike for a controlling parent or teacher. Often the child fears direct confrontation. Therefore, he or she finds indirect means to upset and frustrate those who supervise behaviors.

Common mind games played by passive-aggressive children are:

1. Playing stupid: "Uh? You never told me that." "I don't get it." "I don't understand." "I didn't know I was suppose to ..." "It's too hard."

2. Forgetfulness: "I forgot to mow the lawn," "I forgot my homework. "I forgot what you wanted me to do."

3. Dawdling: "I'm hurrying as fast as I can." "I'll do it later."

4. Inefficiency: "What's the matter with the job I did? It looks good enough to me." "You didn't tell me I had to pull ALL the weeds." "Well, at least a 'D' is passing, and besides, it's the best I can do."


1. Trust: The first step in dealing with a passive-aggressive child is to establish a bond. Most don't trust adults. They believe parents and teachers only use children for their own self-interests. The see adults as highly critical, and are sensitive to judgmental attitudes. They avoid unpleasant interactions.

A parent or teacher can help develop trust by praising a child for what he or she does right and minimize criticism. Have them live up to your expectations, not down.

Even negative judgments should be coupled with praise. For example, "You only pulled half of the weeds. I want to commend you for doing a fine job on the first half. I know you can do just as well on the other half." (Word of caution: Never praise or reward a passive-aggressive child for something undeserved. They will see through it and not respect you or accept the compliment.)

2. Make requests personal: Believe it or not, passive-aggressive children generally want to please, but prefer to be asked, not ordered. They want to do well for those who believe in them. Example: "Wow! You did a wonderful job on those weeds! It takes a special person to take that much care in what you did, and I want you to know how much you really helped me today. I would have had a tough time getting the job done without you. Thanks so much."

3. Surprise gift or compliment: The best rewards are unexpected. "I saw that basketball shirt you wanted at the mall today and got it just as a way to say 'thank you' for helping me with the dishes all week. Thanks, again. I really love you and all you do for me. You're terrific, and I really mean it!"

These are all simple and common-sense solutions, but highly affective over time with this type of personality.

In the beginning, children may "test the waters" when sensing a major change in parental methodology. They may even become more obstinate just to see if the person in authority is sincere. However, if one sticks to the plan and passes the child's "test," the results will usually be quite rewarding.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and retired psychotherapist.

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