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7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

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Passive-Aggressive Example: Disrespectful Attitude from Adult Child

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The following is an example from website readers of passive-aggressive encounters they have experienced. Keep in mind that the suggested responses are not personal advice as a full evaluation of the situation is not available. As such, the suggestions may not work in every situation but are to give you an idea of possible ways to respond. Read: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People

Question:I am the mother of a 36-year-old daughter. Our relationship is very strained. She repeatedly speaks to me with sarcastic intonations in spite of my numerous requests for her to "try to talk nice." She rolls her eyes and smirks at me openly. Then when I get upset/hurt, she says I'm making a big deal about nothing and tells me I drive her crazy. When I try to put some time/distance between us so that things can cool down and I can focus on the things I need to do to take care of myself, she calls me, always due to the latest crisis with which she desperately needs my help (usually requires monetary assistance--something I have in short supply myself). I end up helping her and my son-in-law mostly in the interest of helping my grandchildren. No thank you, no sign of appreciation, and if I say anything that indicates even remotely that a little appreciation would be nice, then the sarcasm starts up, or screaming, or I get cursed out. I realize I'm a huge part of this equation, but I feel like I'm on a merry-go-round, and I don't know how to get off. I see that I am repeating/reliving my relationship with my mother (deceased) with my daughter, and it makes me sick. I feel like my heart is broken. Please help!

7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People
The most difficult social conflict usually involves passive-aggressive (PA) behavior. The reason it is more distressing than even aggressive behavior is because it causes the recipient to be doubtful of him or her self. When someone is aggressive towards you, their intention is clear and it is easier to make a decision such as “I need to steer clear of this person” or “I need to report this behavior.” However, the purpose of passive-aggressive behavior is for the aggressor to avoid responsibility for their actions. PA behavior can easily be denied or blame shifted: “I didn't mean it the way you took it” or “You're being too sensitive” or “You're just trying to get me in trouble.”

As a result, PA behavior cannot be addressed in the same way you might handle aggressive behavior. When managing PA people you need to be aware of the underlying purpose of the behavior so that you can respond in a way that prevents them from succeeding at their agenda. The less likely they are to achieve their goal, the more likely you will see a reduction in their behavior. Read more...
Response: This is a situation where both the mother and daughter are angry with one another but are unable to communicate their feelings directly. As a result, passive-aggressive (PA) behavior occurs from both sides. The daughter is using primarily sarcastic and blaming PA behavior whereas the mother is using controlling PA behavior ("...if I say anything that indicates even remotely that a little appreciation would be nice...").

This is a common problem between adult mothers and daughters because women have often been conditioned from very young to be indirect in their communication which leads to PA communication. I have divided this question up into three components on this website to illustrate how to manage situations using the tools of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The first step is education which I address in a PsychNote. The second step is examining and challenging the mother's thinking regarding the situation which I describe in a Cognitive Diary Example. And the third step is changing the response to the situation as I discuss here.

If the mother has already focused on changing her thinking about the situation she can gain a little emotional distance from the situation which can help her in deciding what would be a better response to her daughter's behavior. In particular, if you have read my article about PA behavior, the goal of the PA person is to indirectly express anger without having to take responsibility. In this situation, the daughter starts with sarcasm and facial expressions. If she is confronted it gives her the opportunity to blame the mother about being overly reactive. This then escalates into more aggressive behavior which the daughter justifies by accusing the mother of "driving her crazy."

The mother needs to remove herself from this pattern. If she has worked on her thinking she already recognizes that trying to control her adult daughter only leads to escalation. Therefore, she needs to do the opposite. She shouldn't try to get her daughter to change behavior or to express appreciation. If she doesn't appreciate the mother's help, the mother doesn't need to continue to help. The mother can use behavior rather than words to manage the situation. When the daughter treats her poorly, the mother can calmly (this is important!) leave the situation or hang up the phone. If the daughter tries to draw her into conflict by saying that she is "making a big deal about nothing" she should have a simple response such as "Maybe I am but I don't like it when you treat me this way." She should not attempt to argue or explain further.

The bottom line with this situation is simply to not engage. But for the mother to not engage she must first change her thinking regarding trying to get her daughter to behave better. Only by doing so will she be able to disengage from the situation. As I indicated, this is a good example of how the different components of CBT work together to help manage a situation.

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