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5 Steps to Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior Online

How to confront and change passive aggressive behavior among young people

Taking public jabs at others while avoiding personal confrontation is a hallmark of passive aggressive behavior. For many, it is also becoming a new social norm as more and more of our interpersonal communication takes place online instead of face to face. Passive aggression is a deliberate but masked way of expressing feelings of anger (Long & Whitson, 2016). Through such actions as posting embarrassing photos on social media and purposeful inactions such as failing to stop the spread of online gossip, digital communication has become the perfect medium for sugarcoated hostility.

In this real-life example* described below, we’ll take a look at an incident of unchecked, online passive aggressive behavior that humiliated a student in a suburban middle school. Then, we’ll look at how one astute teacher stepped in to confront a fellow student’s passive aggressive inaction.

The Incident

A seventh-grade student snapped a cell phone photo of her classmate’s rear end and then texted it to six friends with the caption “Big Ass Brittany.” Kristy received the photo on her phone and laughed out loud at the pose in which her friend, Brittany, had been caught leaning over the water fountain at school. Her first thought was a sense of duty—she knew she should delete the photo immediately and tell the sender to do the same. On the other hand, Kristy also felt a sense of satisfaction at having Brittany’s body mocked, since Brittany was always talking about how pretty she was.

Just as Kristy was about to forward the text to other friends, Brittany walked up to her and asked why she was laughing. Instead of telling Brittany about the humiliating photo that was now traveling around their school, Kristy quickly replied, “Nothing!” and put her phone in her bag. As she looked across the room, Kristy realized that others in her class were looking at the same photo and already forwarding it—making her job unnecessary. “Ready to go to lunch?” she said to Brittany and ushered Brittany out of the room where she was being wordlessly, yet virally, shamed.

Confronting Online Passive Aggressive Behavior

For many, confrontation is a scary prospect. Passive-aggressive individuals know this. They bank on it. The bad news for those who shy away from confrontation is that without directly addressing passive-aggressive behavior, the dynamic will be played out again and again. The good news is that con­fronting passive aggressive behavior need not be an in-your-face, anger-inspiring, make-them-admit-what-they-did kind of authoritarian tactic, but rather works best when it is done through respectful and reflective verbal communication. The skill of Benign Confrontation (Long & Whitson, 2016) is effective when used to directly but respectfully unmask the hidden anger of a passive-aggressive person and help that person gain insight into the destructive nature of his behavioral pattern. Below, we look at how a teacher steps in to benignly confront the way Kristy let the problem escalate by not standing up to stop an embarrassing photo from being forwarded online.

Step 1: Recognize the Pattern of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

By the end of the school day, the “Big Ass Brittany” photo had made its way around the seventh grade and caught the attention of Mr. Peterson, a popular social studies teacher who noticed that several of his students were hovering over a cell phone in the school hallway.

Mr. Peterson approached the kids and asked what they were looking at. “Nothing!” was the synchronized response of the crowd of students. Mr. Peterson asked to see the phone that was in the center of the activity. Because he was a very well-liked and relatable teacher, Kristy handed her phone over to him without protest.

Mr. Peterson saw the photo and its humiliating caption. He dispersed the crowd of kids, encouraging them to get to their buses, but instructed Kristy to stay. Mr. Peterson knew that Kristy and Brittany were normally friends and thought it was strange that Kristy would be in possession of this kind of photo.

Step 2: Refuse to Engage in the Passive-Aggressive Conflict Cycle

When Mr. Peterson asked her about the photo, Kristy quickly downplayed what was happening, saying things like:

  • “It’s just a joke, Mr. Peterson.”
  • “It’s no big deal, seriously.”
  • “I’ll just delete it from my phone.”
  • “I wasn’t the one who took the photo! A whole bunch of people have been sharing it all day!”

Mr. Peterson carefully avoided getting into an argument with Kristy about her excuses. He listened to her explanations, while simultaneously reminding himself not to respond angrily or with sarcasm at her justifications.

Step 3: Affirm the Anger

Mr. Peterson: Kristy, I appreciate you letting me see what everyone was looking at on your phone. That took a lot of courage for you to show me what is going on. I do have to tell you that the photo I am looking at—the one that you called a “joke”—really does not seem very funny to me. In fact, it seems embarrassing to Brittany and just plain mean. I know that you and Brittany are normally friends, so what I have to wonder now is, what would make you keep a picture like this on your phone and share it with so many students in the hallway. Are you angry with Brittany?

Kristy: No, Mr. Peterson. I’m not angry. I told you it is just a joke. It’s not a big deal at all. Everyone takes pictures like this nowadays.

Step 4: Manage the Denial

Mr. Peterson: Kristy, I hear you telling me that this photo is a joke and that the kids find it funny. I am just wondering if Brittany finds it funny, however. As her friend, it is your responsibility to stop photos like this from being forwarded and shared—not to participate in spreading it around. It’s also important that you know that there can be serious legal consequences for having this type of image on your phone and for forwarding it. I want to make sure that whatever is going wrong in your relationship with Brittany is not going to make her life—or yours—very unpleasant.

Kristy: I said I’d delete it. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.

Mr. Peterson: I will delete it for you right now. I’ll also make sure the rest of the class knows what to do with the image. I’m glad to know that you would never engage in this kind of cruelty online, and I want to make sure you know that if you ever receive this type of photo on your phone or online, it is your responsibility to never, ever forward or share it. Your only job is to bring it to an adult in the school who will take care of the problem from there.

Kristy: Okay. Fine. I’m sorry.

Step 5: Revisit the Thought

For adults living and working with 21st-century kids, teaching standards for treating others with dignity and respect while online will never be a once-and-done process. Expectations for kids’ behavior via technology must be stated, restated, reinforced, reviewed, rehearsed, and reiterated over and over again. It will be critical for Mr. Peterson and other adults in the school to follow up with Kristy, with Brittany, with their parents, and with other students about this type of passive-aggressive behavior that technology has made so easy.

Today’s technology allows youngsters almost endless access to infinite networks of peers. Within all of this communication, kids are bound to use poor judgment from time to time. When adults use knee-jerk punishments such as banning all social media or taking away cell phones for a period of time, they send a message to young people about what not to do—or how not to get caught—but they fail to teach kids skills for how to use technology respectfully. In contrast, when authority figures make time to teach kids positive, fun ways to enjoy technology and connectedness, they affirm the natural competencies of this generation of cyber-natives.

*All names and identifying details have been changed.

Signe Whitson is the Director of Counseling at the Swain School in eastern Pennsylvania and the co-author of the book, The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage and Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. For more information on recognizing and responding effectively to passive aggressive behavior online or in school, please visit and click on The Angry Smile links.


Long, N. & Whitson, S. (2016). The Angry Smile: The New Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.

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