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Passive-Aggressive Example
Passive Control as a Form of Passive-Aggression

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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 have a 20-year-old daughter. She is an amazing young woman, going to college, working, and doing mission work twice a year in third world countries. I pay for her college, her housing, car and insurance. Her job affords her to buy food, fuel, and spending money. For the most part, we have a good relationship, but I see it declining. Much like described in this article, I will have a discussion with her trying to be upbeat but always feeling like I'm walking on eggshells. Just tonight, I called her and in the middle of the discussion, she yells the F-word. She knows I don't like cussing, so I respond by saying maybe I should call her back later. She complains and acts very callous towards me. I no longer say anything about her behavior. When I have responded with anything similar to the recommended "Maybe I am but I don't like it when you treat me this way", her normal response is that I'm being over-sensitive. I have started creating a distance between us, but also want to continue to provide love and support to her.

Response: I have a couple reactions to this very common scenario and I think they're interrelated. My first reaction is that this mother may be engaging in subtle advice-giving when it is not desired. So in this case the PA behavior may be unintentional passive control on the mother's part. I know I'm reading into this situation so I will discuss what I have commonly seen in my practice.

My second reaction is that this is part of navigating the separation-individuation stage of development. Let's talk about that first since a successful outcome of that stage sets the tone for the future mother-daughter relationship.

The normal process of development that occurs in late adolescence and early adulthood is identity development. Many parents interfere with this process because it feels like their relationship is "declining" as this woman describes. However, that is not necessarily the case. She describes her daughter as "amazing" and that they have a good relationship. I think especially in the case of parents who have good relationships with their adolescent children, they are surprised at the changes in the relationship and will tend to interfere with this process in subtle ways because they see it as a bad thing. Instead, they need to accept it as necessary for proper development.

What is separation-individuation and identity development? In a nutshell, it is the process of identifying oneself as a separate entity from the parent. It is making one's own decisions, taking pleasure in successful outcomes and owning failures. That might sound great but the process can be difficult. The process means questioning and rejecting values and beliefs that have been taught and replacing them with chosen ones. Some of these may be similar or the same to parental values and some may not.

What is the parent's job during this process? The parent needs to recognize her job of raising her child is finished and the time is coming to form a new adult relationship with the child. This is a time of change and can be quite difficult especially when the parent expects the relationship to remain the same or smoothly transition. During this time many parents feel that the relationship is deteriorating when, instead, it is transforming. Creating distance during this process is normal and often necessary as too much closeness can interfere with identity development.

To help with this transformation some things to examine:

1) Worry. This mother is worrying about their relationship and not being as involved in her daughter's life. This is a time to learn to let go of the worry even though it has been her job as a mother to worry. This is a time, instead, when she can focus on trusting that she has taught her daughter well.

2) Subtle criticism. "Don't you think...?" "Are you sure...?" "It might be a good idea to ...." Would you say these things to a friend who hadn't asked for advice? An adult relationship with a child means to stop giving unsolicited advice. When a parent does so they are undermining a child's confidence and the child is likely to react with anger. "Love and support" means to be there when the adult child desires it but not to be overly involved otherwise.

3) Focus. If the daughter is reacting with anger most likely the mother is focused on the daughter. If the mother was talking about her own day or her interests, it is doubtful the daughter would yell "the F-word" in the middle of the conversation. So it is also time for the mother to begin to focus on herself. This prevents the daughter from feeling like her life is being dissected.

I would suggest my article for further reading: Are You Passive-Aggressive and Want to Change? It can provide guidance for those who are unintentionally PA because of their concern, worry, or over-involvement.

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