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Passive-Aggressive Example
Adult Son Deliberately Upsetting Mother

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The following is an example from website readers of passive-aggressive encounters they have experienced. The suggested responses are not personal advice as a full evaluation of the situation is not available. Also, the suggestions may not work in every situation but are to give you an idea of possible ways to respond. For more, read: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People and 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

Question: I had my son and my lovely daughter-in-law over for dinner. My son invaded the kitchen space and started to turn the burners down when I turned them up. The potatoes burned and I put on a new batch which only took a few moments to do. He continued switching the burners on and off. He said I was trying to impress which I was not. His eyes were dark and angry. I was so upset I was shaking hours later. This is not the first time I felt like this. He comes back and says he is sorry afterwards but it takes me a long time to recover from his behaviour.

Response: Often when people submit questions to me, they are describing their side of the story when there is usually more that is occurring. In such situations, I need to read between the lines because sometimes when inexplicable PA behavior occurs (the son's in this situation) it indicates that PA behavior may be occurring on both sides. However, the mother is unaware of her own PA behavior. What she needs to think about is what are the messages her behavior is giving to her son?

Keep in mind that I am making assumptions based upon very little information and could be completely wrong about this situation. However, this is a training exercise to help people recognize and handle PA behavior so whether my conclusions apply to this particular situation doesn't matter as much as how to handle situations that do meet my assumptions.

This mother probably responded to his behavior by telling him to stop and when he didn't, saying "See, now the potatoes are burned!" Including the information that it "only took a few moments" to put on a new batch indicates they most likely had words about her needing to redo the potatoes. "Mom, they're fine. You're just trying to impress." This speculation and the fact that he does this sort of thing and then apologizes later indicates that most likely this is a perfectionistic mother and a son who is unable to communicate his feelings. Therefore, this is probably a passive-aggressive (PA) duo.

The son seems to be angry with his mother which is often the purpose of PA behavior: an indirect way of expressing anger. If his mother confronts him about his anger, his PA response is likely to be, "I'm just messing with you. You're too uptight." The question is "Why is he angry with his mother?" From what she is describing it seems this is a long-term behavior pattern. He could be angry with her for something specific or it could be the nature of their relationship. Or, it could be a learned behavior that allows him to transfer his frustration about other things onto his mother.

As I indicated, the mother's behavior is most likely PA as well. The perfectionistic martyr ("I'll just put on a new batch of potatoes") gives the indirect message of "You are the cause of my suffering." She then has an anxiety attack to emphasize her point. This is an indirect (PA) consequence to her son. Of course, he is angry with her! Who wants to be told they are the cause of their mother's suffering? One of the most difficult mothers to deal with is the perfectionistic mother because she comes across as only having the child's best interest in mind. That is difficult to confront directly and so children develop other ways to show anger. It is important for her to recognize that her PA style could be the root of his anger. Once she understands that, then she has options to truly change this situation.

How can she stop this pattern with her son? She doesn't seem to provide direct consequences. If she did, he wouldn't be in her kitchen. First, when he does something like this, she should stop and let him suffer the consequences. A lot of times people believe that they can't set consequences for other adults because they don't have control. "I can't make him stop." But what many adults don't seem to realize is that even though they don't have control over the other's behavior, they do have control over their own. For example, she could quit cooking and say, "You can finish dinner. Or, if you want me to do the cooking, then you need to leave the kitchen." This is direct communication with a consequence attached. Or, if the pototoes are burned, serve them burned. But without a martyr statement ("He caused me to burn the potatoes").

Instead, she should take responsibility for her anxiety. He doesn't cause her to be upset and anxious, she allows him to do so because she doesn't give herself the option of setting limits and consequences. She should quit her PA communication of him causing her to be upset and instead learn methods to control her anxiety.

Obviously, there are changes the son could make as well, but he is not the one asking what to do.

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