passive aggressive

Engaging the Passive-Aggressive Family Member

When I would swim in the ocean as a kid, my mom would always tell me, “Beware of the undertow or riptide. It will carry you out to sea.” A riptide is a strong current moving from the shoreline out towards the ocean. You can’t see it until you are caught in one and you will only exhaust yourself and drown if you try to swim against it. In order to survive and get back to land, you have to swim parallel to the beach and remove yourself from the pull of the current.

This is what it’s like to engage with someone who is passive-aggressive. It is someone that uses subversive sabotaging techniques to beat someone else. Passive-aggressives seek to attain power over people and try to maintain that power. Engaging a passive aggressive person in the same way you engage everyone else is like swimming against a riptide. You need a whole new strategy. Is someone in your family passive-aggressive? Maybe even worse, are you?

Here are 5 ways to spot a passive-aggressive and how to engage.


1. Hidden Anger or Bitterness.

Behind that smile, there is a lot of resentment. They won’t admit it, even when you ask them straight up. “It’s totally fine. I’m fine.” You probably can sense that they are not. “You sure?” “Yes. It’s fine.” Then they complain about you to someone else.

2. Surface Compliance, Subversive Rebellion.

You ask them to do something and they say yes, maybe even with enthusiasm. Somehow it never gets done. It’s a pattern.    

3. Calculated Procrastination.

This naturally follows the last one. They say they will do something and it is consistently put off. They aren’t like a normal procrastinator though. Their procrastination is selective. It is a tool to get under your skin.

4. Intentional Subpar Performance.

You ask them to do something, they say yes, complete it in a timely manner, but it is done noticeably poor. You let them know it was poorly done and they turn it back on you by saying, “You’re always so critical of me.”

5. Backhanded Compliments.

They never seem to give you a compliment that feels 100% good. “The steak you cooked tonight was really good for a first try.”


1. Make It a Game.

Don’t become emotionally entangled with their tactics. They want to frustrate you and interacting with them takes work. Since it is work, you might as well make it fun for you. Identify what they are doing and think to yourself, I see what you are doing. Nice try. I’m not falling into that trap. Then respond with the techniques below.

2. Keep it Light.

They will never expose their bitterness. Trying to confront and get things out in the open tends to be the healthiest thing, but doesn’t go well with the passive-aggressive. So keep things light. Don’t waste energy trying to fix them or making them feel okay with you. This is their problem and dysfunction. Don’t let it have power over you.

3. Use Humor and Wit.

This can be a tough one, and one that will require the most practice if it doesn’t come naturally to you. There is a fine line between wit and sarcasm. Stay on the side of wit. It’s not only disarming, but it changes the dynamic.

4. Listen, Be Gracious, and Be Kind.

The last thing you want to do is return their bad behavior with the same type of behavior. Listen to them and try to understand. Be gracious in the face of disgrace. Be kind so they don’t have a reason to be bitter. Then it’s all on them. Your conscience is clear.

Sound Off

How do you deal with passive aggressive people?

BJ Foster

BJ Foster is the Director of Content Creation for All Pro Dad and a married father of two.

  • Johnny

    This is hands-down awesome advice, thank you. I’m married to a very passive-aggressive woman and this is just what I needed to be reading. Thanks

  • Megan

    Your insight into the behavior is excellent, however, in our family it is Dad who is the passive aggressive and while I’ve made every effort to “keep it light” and be gracious and understanding, this behavior has been continuing for years, affecting my life and my kids’ lives. It can’t simply be tolerated forever, and you’ve offered no advice to actually FIX the problem. Frustrating. I need a solution, not a reminder that it isn’t my problem. I’m well aware that the problem is his, but he won’t change it unless he is made to change it. We’ve been to counselling many times, and while counselors empathize, the only advice they give me is to either “accept him and live with it” or walk away from the relationship, which can’t be done without devastating financial and emotional consequences for all of us.. There needs to be some real assistance for people in marriages with children struggling with passive aggressive and narcissistic partners. We need a lot more help than “ignore it”.

    • BJ_Foster

      I never said ignore it. The advice I gave is much more active than that. If he has been confronted about it and won’t change, which is typical of passive aggressive people, then you need to understand that you can only control your response. So you can’t fix the problem you can only respond to it differently and teach your children to do the same. Passive aggressive people take a lot of energy to be around no matter what, so the only thing you can is expend that energy in a way that is healthy for you. My advice would be to work on controlling your emotions so you aren’t entangled by the things he does. Send him a message that you are not going to be bothered or rattled by his games and underhanded manipulation. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is the best way. I wish I could give you a fix Megan, but it doesn’t exist. The only thing you can fix is your side. He’s dysfunctional and he will continue to be dysfunctional.

    • Kris

      it is very difficult to be a part of a family where Dad is the passive aggressor. For my family it did not end with Dad changing. Dad left. When I changed and reacted differently to the passive aggressiveness the family dynamics became too difficult for him, who is also an alcoholic. After he left there were many adjustments that needed to be made and our children did have a difficult time but, i would say the kids and i are better and finding more happiness without the passive aggression on a daily basis. Its been many years of processing. You have to be strong.

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Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Do you know what it means to be passive aggressive?”

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