It’s a Family Thing: When Passive-Aggressiveness Is Passed On

Two people sit at opposite sides of table, looking away from each other and out window“I hope I never turn into my mother,” you say. “You sound just like your father,” you’re told. If one or both of your caregivers was passive-aggressive, the idea of turning into them may be especially horrifying. If you grew up in a household where anger was avoided, you might struggle to break the cycle of passive aggression that can be passed from generation to generation.

Children are like little sponges of information. When we are young, we soak up knowledge and new experiences, and we absorb our family’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors—including their anger style.

There are three main styles of anger:

  1. Anger-avoidant
  2. Anger-expressive
  3. Anger-healthy

Both conflict and love can occur simultaneously in an anger-healthy family. An argument doesn’t destroy closeness, and people work together to resolve problems. In an expressive family, anger is thrown around freely, love comes with a side of explosive conflict, and children learn that to get what they want, they have to be angry.

Right now, though, we’re going to focus on the anger-avoidant type. In these families, anger is rarely expressed or conflict acknowledged. If you’re a people pleaser or hide your emotions, it’s likely you grew up in an anger-avoidant home, or in one where one person was anger-expressive and everyone else hid it at all costs.

What’s wrong with hiding anger? If you’re anger-avoidant, it may sound odd to you that showing it can be a good thing. But anger is healthy, and all of us—yes, all—feel it.

When someone says or does something that makes you angry, you learn about yourself­—what’s important to you, what upsets you. When you tell someone that they’ve angered you, they learn about you, too. It’s impossible for any of us to truly hide our emotions, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that we’re pros at it. When you try to hide your anger, you leave everyone guessing why you’re upset. Tension and bitterness grow.

Now that you’re an adult, you can change your behavior—to stop the generational cycle of passive-aggressiveness. If a passive-aggressive family member is still in your life, you can also learn skills to manage your relationship with them. When you’re working to defeat your passive-aggressive behaviors, it’s important not to get sucked into their anger-avoidant vortex.

As a marriage and family therapist, I work with many families struggling with passive aggression. Over my decades of work, I’ve learned it’s often those around the passive-aggressive person who need the most help.

If a passive-aggressive person makes a snide remark in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? In other words, it takes two to maintain a passive-aggressive relationship. How do you stop supporting someone’s anger avoidance? Try these four steps:

  1. Stop blaming yourself. Your family’s anger style is not your fault. You may be part of the cycle or passive-aggressive too, but we are each responsible for the way we show our emotions. That includes your mother, father, sister, step-brother, and cousin twice removed.
  2. Stop saying you’re sorry. Don’t apologize unless you’ve done something wrong. If your family member makes subtle suggestions that they’re upset about something, don’t say you’re sorry unless they are forthright about why.
  3. Limit your exposure. If you’re in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, you avoid people who drink or do drugs. The same goes for recovery from passive-aggressiveness.
  4. Don’t give in. Passive-aggressive people can be manipulative, especially of people pleasers. To get what they want, they drop hints. Or they make underhanded comments to let you know they’re angry. Like No. 2, the solution is to stop allowing it to work. Stop guessing, stop giving in­, and start putting your needs first.

Now it’s time to work on your own passive-aggressive behaviors.

Now that you’re an adult, you can change your behavior—to stop the generational cycle of passive-aggressiveness. If a passive-aggressive family member is still in your life, you can also learn skills to manage your relationship with them.

I could write a book about how to stop being passive-aggressive—in fact, I’ve written two! But, for now, here’s the nutshell version.

As we’ve already discussed, hidden anger comes from a fear of anger. So, the first thing you have to do is get comfortable feeling angry. I want you to find a time and a quiet place where you can be alone. Then I want you to sit for a while and think back on a situation that upset you.

Go over everything that was said and done and pay attention to any thoughts that arise. Now, focus on the way your emotions feel in your body. Does your stomach clench up? Does your face feel hot? Remember those sensations. Pay attention the next time you feel them. If you’re an anger hider, you may not always know when you’re upset. The next time you feel those sensations will be a clue that someone has said or done something that has angered you.

Faulty thinking (or cognitive distortions) are thought patterns that convince us something is true that isn’t. These thoughts are inaccurate and reinforce negative feelings we have about ourselves. Everyone has cognitive distortions sometimes, but for passive-aggressive people, they can make it hard to express emotions in a healthy way.

Two faulty thoughts especially common in anger-avoidant types are the people-pleasing one and the self-victimization one. “I want everyone to like me,” the people-pleasing thought goes. “The more approval I get from others, the better I feel about myself.” The solution? Try to reframe the thought: “I want everyone to like me (who doesn’t!), but it’s okay if not everyone does. After all, I don’t like everyone either.”

“I might feel that I’m overworked or unappreciated, but I will never say no,” goes the self-victimization thought. Underlying this thought is fear—fear of what will happen or how you’ll feel about yourself if you say no. So, instead of saying no, you grow angry and bitter and your relationships suffer because deep inside, you’re seething with resentment. Wouldn’t just saying no be better? Next time, try it. It may feel awkward at first, and the other party might be surprised, but you’ll be happier and healthier in the long run.

Reframing thoughts, altering behaviors, and getting comfortable with your anger, along with passive-aggressive-person management skills, are a great place to start when you’re trying to break the cycle of generational passive-aggressiveness. For guidance and support, contact a licensed therapist.


Brandt, A. (2013). 8 keys to eliminating passive-aggressiveness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kima

    January 11th, 2018 at 9:31 AM

    I like most of this advice, but how can you limit your exposure when being passive-aggressive is deeply ingrained in the culture of the place you live?

  • Andrea Brandt

    June 11th, 2018 at 2:16 PM

    Hi Hillary – What I wrote above is about 3 main styles of anger – NOT attachment styles. Please reread. These styles are simply people who [1] avoid anger and this comes out in a passive-aggressive manner OR [2] express anger in a way that can hurt others OR [3] people who DO express anger, but in a straight forward assertive manner. It has nothing to do with attachment styles. Hope this clears things up for you. Thank you for your post. Andrea

  • derek

    January 16th, 2018 at 1:23 PM

    My dad is king of passive aggressive there’s no changing him

  • Marie

    April 4th, 2018 at 3:15 AM

    I’m an adult, age 50. My Parents are very angry people. My Dad is passive aggressive and will yell loud and slam doors over nothing because he is angry over things he will never talk about. I am done with my Parents. I can’t visit them in constant discomfort of the yelling and unkind words they spew.

  • Hillary

    April 10th, 2018 at 4:03 AM

    There is absolutely no excuse for coming up with these random, new categories to describe attachment styles. Just use the existing names. You’re only confusing people. Attachment isn’t SOLELY about anger and you don’t have to be a PhD to know that. Geez.

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