The Passive-Aggressive Cycle or: How to Disapprove Without Bullying

The Passive-Aggressive Cycle or: How to Disapprove Without Bullying

Does your five-year-old run up and punch you in the gut instead of saying “Hello”? Does your daughter insist that she can only eat dinner while watching television? Do the cookies hidden on the top shelf disappear much quicker than you dole them out?

We assume the majority of readers here are not the militaristic authoritarian type, quick to crack the whip and bark orders. Most of the parents we meet spend too much time on the opposite end of that scale in a state of appeasement or conflict avoidance. This post is about being more firm without being a jerk. Disapproving without bullying.

Parents who have a tendency to be passive/permissive, will usually swing to an aggressive position when they’ve reached their breaking point. For some, this happens daily. They want to relax, and they want to be kind and generous with their children, so they don’t establish firm boundaries and limits. The child pushes, and the parent folds. The child pushes more, the parent gives in again. Finally when the child pushes again, the parent snaps, yells, maybe worse. (Then they feel terrible, and readjust with an extra dose of permissiveness!) This is the passive-aggressive cycle, easily the most common problem we come across.

The cycle of the parent’s behavior quickly becomes predictable by their children, who are natural-born experts at manipulating adults (nothing malicious about that, their survival depends on it). These parents are left feeling defeated and out-played by their children, in a no-win situation. If they give too much, they lose; if they push back, they lose.

Parents must set boundaries, which essentially means saying “No”. We want to give our children as much freedom as they can handle, but it’s irresponsible to allow them to violate the NAP or other crucial social norms, or to make decisions that will damage their health. Loving is not permitting and enabling patterns of disfunction.

I knew a family whose 6-year-old daughter would wake up every morning screaming. This is no exaggeration; she refused to get out of bed without their support. She would just yell, “MOOOOOM! MOOOM!” angrily. She had been awake for 10 seconds, and the world already owed her something! How do you think the parents responded after 5 minutes of her screaming? Following the typical passive-aggressive cycle, they had usually comforted her, but would occasionally march in and yell back, “STOP YELLING AT ME!” Lose-lose for the parents. And obviously their reactions were reinforcing to the child.

When I suggested that they say “No” and stop engaging, or create negative consequences, I could see the fear in their eyes. It just wasn’t something they were comfortable with. The process can be scary, because the first “No” starts with ourselves. With any relationship, if we’re not comfortable with the position in our own minds, we’re not going to be able to create and sustain it in the relationship. We have to get comfortable fighting for our peace, saying “No” to people intent on destroying it. And if we were punished for that as children, or we didn’t have a lot of examples of loving assertiveness modeled for us, if we only saw the same passive-aggressive cycle from the adults around us, then we will likely develop anxiety around standing up for ourselves. It’s time to end that cycle, if not for ourselves, then for our kids.

When you imagine saying “No” do you fear retaliation? Do you worry the limits you set are arbitrary and unfair (perhaps like those you grew up with, and vowed to avoid repeating)? Have you been conditioned by the “cult of nice” that saying “No” makes you a mean person? If so, all hope is not lost, but some self-work is required. Getting to the bottom of “Why do I fear saying ‘No’?” can be painful, but it’s a necessary process to becoming a peaceful and assertive parent.

It’s an uphill battle. Loving, logical assertiveness is sorely lacking in our world these days, and almost entirely absent from popular culture. Parents on TV are either BAD (explosive and unfair), or GOOD (fun-loving pushovers). I guess it doesn’t make for much of a story when the child asks if he can skate-board over the Grand Canyon, the adult says “No, but I can help you find something else to do”, and that’s that; he finds something else to do. The parenting experts who do encourage firm boundaries are usually the same ones telling us to initiate force when the child doesn’t do what we want. That’s off the table for NAP parents.


Here are some tips we use to make the interaction smoother. 

Use “I statements” 

“I don’t like anyone yelling across the house, unless there’s an emergency”.

As we explained in “The Power of ‘I’ Statements“, you don’t have to worry about being “unfair” if you’re just being honest about your feelings. Even if the statement is not entirely rational, such as, “I don’t like when you wear orange” it’s at least honest and non-argumentative.

Set Fair (Reasonable) Boundaries 

We like the word reasonable, which we touched on a bit in this post. It’s used commonly in Law, and also demands some philosophical rigor. Is the boundary being set reasonable? Would it hold up under scrutiny, in a calm setting, by a group of quality peers? Are you saying “No you can’t wear flip flops today!!” because it’s legitimately problematic, or because you’re worried what the neighbors might think of your fashion choices? Save your “No’s” for when they’re really warranted, and then stick to them.

Non-aggressive escalation 

If you’ve tried the advice, said, “I don’t like anyone yelling across the house … will you please stop?”, and you’re being ignored, it’s time to escalate past the polite request.

Try, “I’ve made a reasonable request, repeatedly. Stop now or there will be negative consequences, last warning.”

(We discuss non-aggressive negative consequences in other posts). If you’re still being ignored, initiate those consequences, calmly and fairly. You must follow through.

If they quit now in protest, continue with “I appreciate you stopping, that’s the right thing to do, but it’s too late to avoid the consequences. I made the request, I said there would be consequences, you continued, so now there are consequences. I hope you will catch yourself next time, and please let me know if I can help with that.”

If we haven’t already said it enough, those consequences can not rely on the initiation of force or the threat of it. If the rules and consequences are fair, then it would only be unfair for you to not follow them!

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