Do you work with a student who consistently performs at a level that is beneath his ability? Is there a child in your classroom who habitually procrastinates, predictably “forgets,” and inevitably dawdles the whole day long? Are you acquainted with a young person who harbors hostile feelings toward you or a classmate, but never expresses this anger in words?
Passive aggressive students master the art of emotional concealment by hiding their anger behind a mask of annoying and confusing behaviors (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). While schools usually have long lists of policies and procedures for managing overtly aggressive behavior and educators receive hours of in-service training each year on minimizing classroom disruptions, far less time and attention is given to helping teachers recognize and effectively manage the indirect expression of anger that is the hallmark of passive aggression.
Yet, we know that hidden hostility is a significant problem in schools. Teachers often report their irritation and confusion over how a non-aggressive student can cause them to experience such feelings of anger over time. They describe again and again how they have “had it” with students such as these and how they can no longer even look at them without feeling animosity.
It is certain that without awareness and understanding of the dynamics of passive aggressive behavior, it can be very difﬁcult for authority figures in the classroom to see beyond a student’s frustrating behaviors and to identify his/her underlying feelings of anger. Once a teacher becomes aware of these troubling dynamics, however, he becomes well-equipped to maintain emotional neutrality and manage his responses in such a way as to skillfully connect with the passive aggressive student.
This article describes typical school-based passive aggressive patterns through which students succeed in frustrating their teachers (winning the battle) but ultimately damaging their own school experience (losing the war.) In a follow-up article, I will outline strategies educators can use to stop the dynamics of passive aggressive interactions with kids in their classrooms.
Pattern 1: Temporary Compliance
In this pattern of passive aggressive behavior, students verbally comply with an authority figure's directive, but behaviorally delay carrying out the request.
Lily is a second grader who loves Art but dislikes her regular classroom lessons. When her teacher instructs the class to begin putting away their art supplies in order to begin Social Studies, Lily acknowledges her teacher with a nod, but continues to work on her collage. Even when all of her classmates are lined up and ready to move on to the next class period, Lily is still slowly putting the cap on her glue bottle and painstakingly placing her scissors in their case. She dilly-dallies through her teacher's multiple prompts to clean up and insists, "I'm coming" so many times that her classmates begin to giggle. Finally, her exasperated teacher loses control and lashes out against Lily in front of the whole class. "Ha!" Lily thinks to herself. "Now you know how I feel about having to stop my art project before I am finished with it."
Pattern 2: Intentional Inefficiency
Students acting out this pattern of passive aggressive behavior behaviorally comply with an unwanted task, but carry it out at a purposefully substandard level.
James is a high school sophomore who exceled in Science and Math but strongly disliked anything to do with writing. During his Creative Writing class, he took pleasure in finding new ways to violate the spirit of his teacher's assignments, while still following the letter of her law. When his teacher assigned a 10-page, typed, double-spaced essay on time travel, James handed in a paper with exactly 20 words on it--two per page, typed, with a blank line between each of the words on the page. For the next assignment, the teacher added a word count to her specifications. James met the word count, filling his essay with wild vocabulary words and long strings of adjectives to meet the 1000-word standard exactly. Each time his teacher would confront James about his under-performance, he would insist, "What? I followed the rules exactly. You're just picking on me. Beside, this IS Creative Writing class and I WAS being creative."
Pattern 3: Letting a Problem Escalate
In this pattern, a young person expresses anger at an authority figure in the school by making a conscious decision not to act, even when his action could prevent a problem from occurring. I often call this pattern of passive aggressive behavior a crime of omission, for it is what a student consciously chooses not to do that creates a problem.
Thirteen-year-old Silas is angry at his Spanish teacher, Mrs. Robinson, for confiscating his cell phone during class. At the end of the period, Silas is walking behind Mrs. Robinson in the hall when he sees his teacher's phone fall out of his briefcase. "Mrs. Robinson!" he calls out impulsively. When his teacher turns around, Silas stops short, smiles, and says, "Ummm, I was just wondering when I could my phone back." He continues to engage Mrs. Robinson until they are both all the way down the hall, far away from the scene of the crime of omission.
Pattern 4: Hidden but Conscious Revenge
This pattern of passive aggressive behavior occurs when a student has hostile feelings toward a teacher and makes a very deliberate decision to get back at him/her at a later time.
Mandy loved computers, but hated her Computer teacher. She perceived him as rude when he directed her to stay on task with her classmates instead of moving ahead at her own pace. After studying the basics of website design in class, Mandy decided on a perfect way to show her teacher how much she actually could stay on a task. She built a small website dedicated to him. Using a real photo from the yearbook and tons of false, embarrassing information, she published the site online and anonymously publicized it around the school. Her teacher was humiliated in front of the student body and had to defend against the untrue postings when confronted by school administrators. Mandy enjoyed the drama from her safe distance. Recognizing the impact of this first website, she realized the potential for building others related to classmates she did not favor. (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009).
Pattern 5: Self-Depreciation
This pattern of passive aggressive behavior is considered the most pathological, in that a young person conveys her covert anger in ways that hurt others, but also have long-term, negative consequences for herself.
Pippa was a bright, artistic high school senior. She was the youngest of three children and the daughter of two medical doctors. Everyone else in her family had an Ivy League college education and this was the path her family assumed she would travel on as well. Pippa wanted to attend Art School rather than a traditional university, but her parents said they would not pay for anything other than a traditional academic education. Pippa was furious, but felt she had no power to verbally dissent. She consented to her parents' wishes and applied to all of the Ivy League universities. Little did her parents realize, however, that Pippa sabotaged each and every application, describing in her essays how much she despised each school and was only applying because her parents forced her to do so. Sure enough, Spring came and Pippa found herself with eight rejection letters from the Ivy Leagues and no feasible plan for attending any university in the Fall. Suddenly, Art School seemed like a good plan to her parents…
Passive aggressive behavior is often a response to a young person feeling as though his life will only get worse if he expresses his anger directly. While the choice to behave with sugarcoated hostility often feels satisfying to the young person in the moment, in the long-term this indirect style of communication isolates the child from sources of adult support.
This article is designed to help educators recognize the red flags of passive aggressive behavior. When teachers are willing and able to look beyond behavior and recognize the anger that drives students, they are in the best position to meaningfully connect with young people and eventually re-direct their passive aggressive behaviors to more emotionally honest, assertive anger expression. In the next article, I will outline strategies for how teachers can confront and change the passive aggressive behaviors of students.
Signe Whitson, LSW is a licensed social worker, school counselor, and COO of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute. For more information on understanding and managing passive aggressive behavior, please visit www.signewhitson.com
Is there someone in your life who consistently makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? Do you know a person who is friendly one day but sulks and withdraws the next? Does a family member or friend consistently procrastinate, postpone, stall, and shut down any emotionally-laden conversations? Are you sometimes that person? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, chances are you may be interacting with a passive aggressive person or showing signs of passive-aggressive behavior yourself.
In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed., passive aggression is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). It involves a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without him recognizing the underlying anger. These 10 common passive aggressive phrases can serve as an early-warning system for you, helping you recognize hidden hostility when it is being directed your way:
1. "I'm not mad."
Denying feelings of anger is classic passive aggressive behavior. Rather than being upfront and honest when questioned about his feelings, the passive aggressive person insists, "I'm not mad" even when he or she is seething on the inside.
2. "Fine." "Whatever."
Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the passive aggressive person. Since passive aggression is motivated by a person's belief that expressing anger directly will only make his life worse (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008), the passive aggressive person uses phrases like "Fine" and "Whatever" to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.
3. "I'm coming!"
Passive aggressive persons are known for verbally complying with a request, but behaviorally delaying its completion. If whenever you ask your child to clean his room, he cheerfully says, "Okay, I'm coming," but then fails to show up to complete the chore, chances are he is practicing the fine passive aggressive art of temporary compliance.
4. "I didn't know you meant now."
On a related note, passive aggressive persons are master procrastinators. While all of us like to put off unpleasant tasks from time to time, people with passive aggressive personalities rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.
5. "You just want everything to be perfect."
When procrastination is not an option, a more sophisticated passive aggressive strategy is to carry out tasks in a timely, but unacceptable manner. For example:
- A student hands in sloppy homework.
- An individual prepares a well-done steak for his or her spouse wife, knowing the spouse prefers to eat steak rare.
- An employee dramatically overspends the budget on an important project.
In all of these instances, the passive aggressive person complies with a particular request, but carries it out in an intentionally inefficient way. When confronted, he or she defends the work, counter-accusing others of having rigid or perfectionist standards.
6. "I thought you knew."
Sometimes, the perfect passive aggressive crime has to do with omission. Passive aggressive persons may express their anger covertly by choosing not to share information when it could prevent a problem. By claiming ignorance, the person defends inaction, while taking pleasure in a foe's trouble and anguish.
7. "Sure, I'd be happy to."
Have you ever been in a customer service situation where a seemingly concerned clerk or super-polite phone operator assures you that your problem will be solved. On the surface, the representative is cooperative, but beware of the angry smile; behind the scenes, he or she is filing your request in the trash and stamping your paperwork with "DENY."
8. "You've done so well for someone with your education level."
The backhanded compliment is the ultimate socially acceptable means by which the passive aggressive person insults you to your core. If anyone has ever told you, "Don't worry; you can still get braces, even at your age" or, "There are a lot of men out there who like plump women," chances are you know how much "joy" a passive aggressive compliment can bring.
9. "I was only joking"
Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of a passive aggressive person who expresses hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways. If you show that you are offended by biting, passive aggressive sarcasm, the hostile joke teller plays up his or her role as victim, asking, "Can't you take a joke?"
10. "Why are you getting so upset?"
The passive aggressive person is a master at maintaining calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his or her indirect hostility, blow up in anger. In fact, the person takes pleasure out of setting others up to lose their cool and then questioning their "overreactions."