How Do You Respond To Passive Aggressive Behavior? Tips For Dealing With Difficult People

Your mother-in-law suggested doing a gift exchange this year, at her house. Her instructions we were to give gifts only to the person whose name you drew. Any gifts you wanted to give to other family members we to be given another time, just with those people.

As the gift exchange gifts were being passed out, she chose to pass out the gifts she’d bought for people.  A non-gift-exchange gift was given to every member of your family — your husband, your children, even their spouses and dates; everyone except you. You certainly notice, but you are more into giving than receiving gifts, so you just shrugged it off. You feel a little knife in your gut that you are being excluded, but it’s a “roll off the back” kind.

Then, in a loud voice that stopped everyone’s conversations and drew everyone’s attention to these non-gift-exchange gifts, your mother-in-law says to her husband, “Oh no! There’s a gift missing! Go get it! It’s in the bedroom!” The entire assembled group waits for his return. You dare to expect that your gift would be the one brought in so no drama will occur.

When your father-in-law returns, he hands the gift to your mother-in-law, who hands it to your adult daughter saying, “That’s it! It’s a gift for your dogs! We can’t forget them! They are an important member of the family, too!” Then laughs at her funny self.

You really want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but comments like this are directed at you at almost every family gathering – and it’s been going on for years! You always try to be the bigger person, take the high road, or let things roll off your back, just so you don’t make a scene. But this is might be your last straw.

You try not to take it personally, even though it’s clearly directed at you, because you know you aren’t the only person she does this to. Other people acknowledge the same kind of incidents have happened to them. They say they accept that’s just the way she is and brush it off, knowing she’ll probably never change. They also acknowledge you seem to be on the receiving end a lot more often than anyone else and sympathize, but they never back you up when you need them.


How Would You Interpret What Was Said?

To be fair, you certainly want to consider that maybe you are reading too much into what was said or that there is a logical explanation for what happened. Do make a serious effort to do so, so you have eliminated every other possibility and give the person the “benefit of the doubt”:

This exact story was told to hundreds of people over a ten-month period of time during workshops on effective communication skills and healthy family relationships. As soon as they hear what the mother-in-law says about the gift to the dogs, the entire room gasps! They are then asked “how would you interpret what she said?”

Across the board, 100% of the workshop participants say the meaning may have seemed hidden but was quite blatant and obvious, “You aren’t part of this family. Everyone else who got a gift is, even the dogs — but we want to be sure you know we don’t consider you a member of the family and that even those dogs are more important than you.”

Yes, this is a classic example of passive aggressive behavior.


What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior?

 “Passive Aggressive Behavior” is an effort to be aggressive or hurtful, using passive communication or actions.

It’s a rather sophisticated, adult form of bullying, except it’s done in a skillfully passive way.

Here are some classic examples:

  • Sneaking up behind you and whispering insulting comments in your ear.
  • Being cornered and confronted about personal matters that aren’t anyone else’s business,
  • Simply being ignored, interrupted or dismissed when you try to participate in conversations or events as part of the group. The non verbal communication use is usually loud and clear, but since nothing is actually said aloud, it allows the passive aggressive person an “out” or way to blame the target if confronted.
  • Sarcasm that’s directed at someone, which is totally different from having a sarcastic sense of humor that is directed at life or situations in general, not at any particular person.
  • The Silent Treatment, which is overtly ignoring someone, usually while sulking around making it clear they are upset.
  • Being interrupted when you start to talk and changing the subject. Self-centered, narcissistic people will often change the subject to themselves.
  • Insults that use unclear language that could be interpreted more than one way, so the insulter leaves open the possibility of being able to excuse their behavior if caught.
  • Backhanded compliments, such as: “I like your dress very much. It does wonders for your figure.”
  • Insulting gifts, such as giving a 30-year-old grandchild flannel pajama pants, two sizes too small, with children’s cartoons on them.
  • And more…it’s amazing how creative and skillful some people can be!


How Can You Tell If It’s Intentional Or Unintentional?

Use The Universal Blueprint®

The Parents Toolshop® Universal Blueprint® offers a quick and easy way to identify the difference between Problem behavior that’s Unintentional (PU) and Problem behavior that’s  On purpose (PO) — regardless of whether it’s an adult or child behaving that way.

You ask, “Has this child (or adult) consistently shown he or she has mastered the skills to behave appropriately in this situation.

The reasons someone might not have mastered the skills can include:

  • Age or developmental stages, usually in children,
  • Personality traits: they just aren’t wired that way, so it’s difficult for them to master skills that don’t come naturally to them.
  • Lack of knowledge or unawareness, which can occur in both children and adults, too.
  • Medical condition that affects their behavior. This could be something as minor as a child coming down with an ear infection, to ADHD, to an adult with dementia.
  • An Accident, which is obviously unintentional.

If any of these factors are involved, the person may not have mastered the skills and could still slip up, not remember, or not perform the skill well. It’s Problem behavior that’s Unintentional (PU).

For example, some negative, toxic people don’t know they are negative or toxic. It’s just the way they are. If you were to confront them or tell them what they said was hurtful, they would be surprised. (See the second test below.)

If none of these factors are involved and the person has consistently shown the ability to behave properly or seems to be deliberately behaving that way, it’s Problem behavior that’s On purpose (PO)

By applying these criteria to the opening story, your mother-in-law has consistently shown she is capable of keeping track of who she’s buying gifts for, knew right where the gift was, and is showing she is capable of thinking about another person (or dogs) feelings and taking action to not exclude them. That’s what she did with the dogs and what she chose not to do for you.

Now, you don’t want to assume anything, but if you really can’t tell, assume it’s Problem behavior that’s Unintentional (PU) and respond in a way that somehow raises the person’s awareness or teaches skills. If it’s Problem behavior that’s On purpose (PO), they will almost go out of their way to make it clear it’s deliberate, like this mother-in-law did.

In the opening story, the mother-in-law’s attempt to make sure everyone was watching, then making it obvious only to you that you were being excluded, it shows the behavior was intentional and extra effort was being made to be sure only you got the message and that you got the message she intended.


Use This Surefire Test

Here is a surefire test for knowing or confirming if someone’s behavior is passive-aggressive or just an accident or oversight:

  • If you call them out on their behavior or confront the person, respectfully and assertively, and they are, in fact, being passive-aggressive (in other words, they did mean for it to be hurtful), they will do any, some or all of the following:
    • Deny it,
    • Accuse you of misinterpreting the situation,
    • Blame you for being upset, usually saying you are “too sensitive” or “can’t take a joke,”
    • Make excuses for their behavior (which are usually lame excuses that don’t make logical sense), instead of accepting responsibility for their words and actions.
  • If you call them on it or confront the person, respectfully and assertively, and they are not being passive-aggressive (In other words, they truly did not mean for it to be hurtful), they will do any, some or all of the following:
    • Apologize, often profusely,
    • Acknowledge your hurt feelings or show understanding for how it could have seemed hurtful,
    • Assure you of their true intentions but not make excuses for their behavior,
    • Reassure you of their true feelings for you, often telling you they love you or care about you,
    • Restate what they said in a more clear, well-thought-out, respectful way.

When you apply those guidelines to the opening story, the incident it meets all the tests and verifies it was intentional passive aggressive behavior. It’s possible it was sub-conscious or part of the mother-in-law’s personality, but definitely passive-aggressive nevertheless.


Why Are Some People Passive Aggressive, Toxic People?

In The Universal Blueprint®, if a Problem behavior is  On purpose (PO), you want to next ask, “What’s the purpose?” There are only four possible answers. Let’s see which could fit:

Attention: It’s unlikely passive-aggressive behavior would be for attention or to be noticed.

Giving Up: This goal always uses passive behavior and is never aggressive. So that can’t fit.

Power: This is probably the most common goal, to see if they can control your feelings or reactions. Can they get to you? Psychology Today Magazine says, “Passive aggressive people take genuine pleasure in frustrating others. They are masters at getting others to act out their angry feelings–to explode and appear crazy–while the passive aggressive person sits back and watches the emotional outburst with satisfaction, total control, and always with their own poise intact.”

Revenge: This is the other possible goal, but only if you hurt them first or they perceive you hurt them. When dealing with difficult people or toxic people, they often misinterpret what you say or read into it, thereby getting their feelings hurt even when you don’t intend to do so. So it’s possible the think you hurt them and are getting revenge. But it takes a lot of nerve to be openly aggressive, so they take the cowards way out and use passive aggressive behavior.


So What Can You Say Or Do?

Knowing whether to respond to passive aggressive behavior can be a challenge.

  • If you tell them off the person in no uncertain terms, it’s disrespectful and will usually escalate the situation if the goal is revenge. If the goal is power, it gives a payoff to know they got to you. Also, if no one else heard what was said, it can look like you are creating the drama.
  • If you say or do nothing, it won’t give the payoff of knowing they got to you, but then they are getting away with the behavior, so it’s more likely to continue.

Then, if you choose to respond, knowing how is the next challenge:

You want to use effective communication skills in all your relationships, especially if you want to have healthy family relationships. The key is to be assertive.

Assertive communication involves speaking up for yourself (so you aren’t being passive) and doing so in a way that is respectful to the other person (not aggressive).

Assertive communication involves speaking about you; you own your perceptions and feelings and avoid blame. So instead of “You just insulted me,” you might say “That sounded insulting” or “I feel insulted.”

You could have a very long list of possible responses and since each really needs to be specific to the situation, it’s highly recommended you review the article on Using Effective Communication. The skills are the same, whether you are speaking to adults or children, you always want to use these tools.

Unfortunately, using effective communication skills, like being assertive, isn’t a guarantee the passive aggressive behavior will stop. Remember the sure-fire test? It’s likely all you’ll get are excuses, no apology, and blamed for being too sensitive. So here is one more alternative.

Engage Your Support System. You don’t need to subject myself to that treatment, so if you have to be around the person, you can make sure you aren’t alone with the person, have witnesses and support people who will back you up. Everyone else might be afraid to speak up, too, but you are less likely to be abused in front of others. Remember, their goal is to be passive and get away with it! Passive-aggressiveness if a form of adult bullying, so remind the by-standers if they aren’t a part of the solution, they are part of the problem.

Disengage. Lastly, after making whatever valiant efforts you can, it may become clearer and clearer that that while you might want to work things out, every relationship involves at least two people and both have to want to work things out for healing to occur. So if you are the only one who wants this relationship, then you need to take the following steps, which are inspired by Ekhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now.

Change it. You can change whether it bothers you, how you interpret the event, how you choose to respond, if you respond, etc.

Accept It. It is what it is, they are who they are. If you want to be in a relationship with them, then this goes with the territory.

Remove Yourself From It. When you’ve done all you can to change it and the behavior is simply unacceptable (as in truly abusive), then you may need to remove yourself from the situation (walk away in the moment or don’t go to events where the person is attending) or the person and relationship altogether (divorce, ending a friendship, etc.).

Obviously, this is your last resort, but sometimes if you are dealing with a difficult person who is really negative or toxic people, the longer you stay in the relationship, the more damage you will to do yourself. Love yourself enough to walk away.


For more tips on effective communication with your family and more information about The Parent’s Toolshop® and its unique Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system, get the 7 Keys to Parenting Success ebook. You will be less frustrated, respond more calmly and feel more confident in any parenting situation.

The best part is 7 Keys to Parenting Success ebook is free!  So what are you waiting for?  Sign up now!


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years’ experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She has interviewed many parenting experts on her Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website,

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