Connecting With Teens Who Are Passive-Aggressive

It’s a relatively normal developmental milestone for teens to start to withdraw from their parents and siblings. While it may be expected, it rarely feels good for anyone in the family. Things in the home can become difficult and tense, particularly if your teen begins to show signs of aggressive or passive aggressive behavior. It may even start to take a toll on your other children and your relationship with your co-parent.

How much do you know about passive aggressive behavior?

How can you differentiate between normal teen angst, anger, passive aggressive, and aggressive behavior that can potentially put you and other family members at risk of harm?

Learning how to recognize this behavior can help you to learn how to address it better. If you’re living with a teen who makes you constantly on edge and feels like you’re on the most unpleasant of emotional roller coasters, it can be exhausting. Passive aggressive teens have a knack for behaving in ways that can lead even the most level-headed amongst us to explode with frustration and anger.

Defining passive aggressive behavior

The definition of passive aggression can be complicated. It’s a set of deliberate and masked efforts to express anger and frustration. The passive aggressive person will quite often have the goal of getting back at someone, usually a parent until that person gets angry.

It’s confusing and frustrating, to be sure. The pattern of behaviors will see your teen indirectly displaying the negative feelings he’s experiencing instead of just openly discussing them.

There is a very confusing disconnect between what a passive aggressive teen will say and what he will do.

Some of the signs of passive aggressive behavior include:

  • Showing opposition and resentment to what others are asking of them.
  • Making intentional mistakes and procrastinating.
  • Hostile attitudes, with sullen or cynical behavior.
  • Complaining frequently about feeling cheated out of something or about feeling underappreciated.

Passive aggressive behavior is often seen as a part of several mental health conditions. However, it is not considered to be a stand-alone mental illness. This type of behavior can take a toll on relationships and result in challenges at school for a teen.

Passive aggressive teens feel to their core that things will be much worse for them if those around them are aware of how angry they are. They quickly learn to become adept at hiding their anger through a series of complicated, infuriating, and socially acceptable behaviors.

To the satisfaction of the passive aggressive teen, the object of their behavior will lose control while they feel they’ve won.

It’s not just teen angst, right?

It’s easy to think that the behavior your teen is displaying is just typical angst and not a sign of something more serious.

Teen angst has a few characteristics you may recognize:

  • A need for independence, which may take the form of retreating from the family more often
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Pessimistic attitudes
  • Anxiety about friends, school, and changes within the family

More often than not, typical behavior for a teen will involve eye-rolling, foot-stomping, and a few slammed doors. When it starts to look like emotional outbursts, crying, sleeping more often than usual, and a drop in grades, there is the risk that your teen may be depressed.

Causes of passive aggressive behavior

It’s completely normal to experience emotions like frustration, anger, and a sense of displeasure at something. Teens and adults who turn to passive aggressive behavior instead of directly communicating their emotions often grew up in an environment where this behavior was common.

They may not have felt safe expressing their feelings when they were younger. Your teen may have learned that expressing this type of behavior gets him what he wants, and he can also avoid confrontation.

Interestingly enough, passive aggressive behavior can also be linked to several mental health concerns, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • ADHD
  • Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction

Are passive aggressive teens violent?

Generally speaking, teens who demonstrate passive aggressive behavior are not physically violent. That said, this type of behavior can be considered emotional abuse and psychological violence. These teens are in strong pursuit of trying to control their environment so that they can get their way.

If your teen does start acting out violently, it is time to seek immediate help from mental health professionals. Physical violence can quickly escalate to an out-of-control situation.

Managing passive aggressive behavior in your teen

Your teen may not be aware that he is being passive aggressive. To him, this type of behavior may be normal. He may mistakenly think that this is the best approach to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or keep something bad from happening. Whether there is a risk of this is less important to your teen than the fact that he feels it.

We’re all guilty of showing passive aggressive behavior now and then. It becomes a problem when there’s a pattern of behavior.

So, what can you do to connect with your troubled teen as he deals with emotions that he can’t find a way to express in a healthy way?

Start conversations with “I” statements. This is a more direct approach to having a conversation. Modeling it can help him to learn the right way to handle his emotions. As an example, “I don’t appreciate it when you speak that way to me.” You may need to reinforce your needs and feelings to your teen before seeing him changing the way he is behaving.

In truth, this might not be something that you can continue to handle at home on your own. Getting the advice of a therapist can be helpful. Therapists help you and your teen determine what is behind this behavior and arm you with communication skills to improve future conversations.

Family support is an important part of treating your teen. Mental health treatment for teens who are struggling is more of a journey than a simple fix. Getting your teen the right kind of treatment is an essential part of ensuring that he can overcome the struggles that he is facing. Whether that involves outpatient therapy or an inpatient treatment program, the goal of treatment is to ensure that your teen learns the vital coping skills he needs to face the world around him.

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