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5 Traits of the Passive-Aggressive Teenager

How to identify passive-aggressive behavior in teens.

Key points

  • The Mayo Clinic defines passive-aggressive behavior as "a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them."
  • If unchecked, teenage passive-aggression may continue into adulthood in unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships.
  • Some teenagers learn to tease and use negative humor as means of competitive social comparison and one-upping their peers.
 Pexels/Karolina Grabowska
Source: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska

Teenagers are a unique and often self-contradictory breed. As a group, they often strive for individuality yet crave peer acceptance. They can act like they know everything yet lack much experience. They feel invincible yet are often insecure. Some teenagers thrive on testing and challenging authority overtly (i.e., open arguments and conflict) or covertly (i.e., passive-aggressiveness). This article focuses on the characteristics of passive-aggressive teenagers.

The Mayo Clinic defines passive-aggressive behavior as "a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There's a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does.”

What are some of the most common traits of passive-aggressive teenagers? Here are five key signs, with references from my book How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult Teenagers and How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions. While some teens may exhibit the characteristics below on occasion, which might not be a major issue, a chronically passive-aggressive adolescent will regularly resort to one or more of the following behaviors. Significantly, if unchecked, teenage passive-aggressiveness may continue into adulthood in highly unhealthy and dysfunctional family, romantic, and work relationships.

Sulking, Pouting, and the Silent Treatment

One of the most common forms of teenage passive-aggressiveness is what may be termed “silent resentment.” The passive-aggressive adolescent has suppressed negative emotions, is unable or unwilling to deal with the issue directly, and resorts to disgruntled silence to express anger and resentment covertly. Silence also may be used as a form of protest, as it temporarily cuts off communication and relationships.

False Promises, Procrastinating, and Keeping People Hanging

A convenient way to act passive-aggressively (from the teenager's perspective) is to say one thing but do another or simply not follow through. By agreeing initially, the passive-aggressive adolescent gets the immediate pressure off his or her back. Through procrastination and delays, he hopes the issue will be overlooked, expectations lowered, and that he will not be asked again.

For some teens, chronically keeping people waiting, hanging, frustrated, and disappointed are ways to control the relationship indirectly. She or he takes delight in pushing people's (especially adults') buttons.

Excuse-Making, Blaming, Shifting, and Victimhood

Two common teenage excuses for neglected responsibility are “something happened, and I forgot” and “I misunderstood, I thought you said…”. By offering excuses (real or made-up), the teen hopes to get a free pass and avoid being held responsible for their actions. While legitimate forgetfulness or misunderstanding can occur occasionally and should be given the benefit of the doubt, a chronically passive-aggressive adolescent will routinely resort to excuses to dodge accountability.

Two other frequent excuse-making tactics are blame-shifting and victimhood—it’s always someone else’s fault, and it’s beyond the teenager’s control. Primary responsibility is thus avoided.

Negative Humor, Teasing, and Sarcasm

Some teenagers learn to tease and use negative humor as means of competitive social comparison and one-upping their peers. In teen-to-adult relationships which lack respect, the adolescent can also employ negative humor to marginalize, invalidate, belittle, or discount grown-ups. In particular, sarcasm may be utilized as an insidious way of expressing contempt.

The teenager is simultaneously challenging authority by using negative humor, asserting independence (however immaturely), showing off (especially in front of peers), and relishing in negative power and attention. When confronted with the negative humor, the passive-aggressive teen can easily backtrack, claim innocence, and say, “I’m just kidding,” “I didn’t mean it,” or “can’t you take a joke?” Such is the duplicity of passion-aggressiveness.

Passive-Aggressive Words and Phrases

Below are some common teenage passive-aggressive expressions and their possible meta-meanings. Oftentimes, it is not the words but the tone which reveals the adolescent’s true mindset and emotions.

  • “Fine!” (anger, defiance, resistance)
  • “What!?” (anger, resentment, annoyance)
  • “Whatever!” (disagreement, dismissiveness, marginalization, belittlement)
  • “I don’t care!” (bitterness, resentment)
  • “Oh, well!” (dismissiveness, detachment, shedding responsibility)
  • “I’m not angry!” or “I’m not upset!” (angry, upset)
  • Smiley and other emojis in messages (tone of the written text reveals true intention and emotions).

For tips on how to handle difficult teenagers, see references below.

© 2021 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.

References

Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult Teenagers. PNCC. (2015)

Ni, Preston. How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2016)

The Mayo Clinic. What is passive-aggressive behavior?

mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/passive-aggressive-behavior/faq-20057901

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