Passive Aggressive Teen Behaviour: Causes, Signs & What To Do

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Passive aggressiveness in teens can be frustrating, upsetting and can negatively impact family dynamics and teenage relationships.

I’m a child clinical psychologist and I have worked with teens and their families for over twenty years.

In this article I’ll look at causes of passive aggressive teen behaviour, signs to look out for, and actionable tips on how to effectively deal with it as a parent.

By understanding passive aggressive behaviour and how it affects your teenager, you can take proactive and empathetic approaches to help your teen navigate their emotions and actions.

Understanding Passive Aggressive Behaviour in Teens

boy looking thoughtful at desk


Passive aggressive behaviour is expressing negative feelings in indirect ways. It’s a type of behaviour that is often used to avoid confrontation.

teen boy lying down


In teenagers, passive aggressive behaviour can affect their social and emotional development. As a parent, it’s important to understand and respond to passive aggressive behaviour in a healthy and effective way.


Passive aggressive behaviour in teens may be caused by various factors such as low self-esteem, unrecognized anger, or fear of rejection or conflict. In some cases, teens may not be aware of their actions and their impact on others.

“I hate it when my parents ask me to clean my room. I always say I’ll do it, but I take forever to get it done. It’s my way of telling them I don’t want to do it, but I don’t want to argue with them either.”

The above quote is an example of how passive aggressive behavior can be used to avoid arguing with parents.

Why Is Passive Aggressive Behaviour in Teens a Problem?

Passive-aggressive behaviour, like delaying room cleaning as a form of silent protest, can be problematic for several reasons.

It creates a barrier to open communication, preventing both the teen and the parents from understanding each other’s perspectives and feelings.

This lack of clear communication can lead to tension, frustration and resentment on both sides, potentially damaging the relationship over time.

It can make it difficult for teens to form and maintain healthy friendships, as such behaviour can be interpreted as manipulative or not genuine.

Passive aggressive behaviour also doesn’t address the underlying issue or lead to a resolution.

It can become a pattern, limiting the teen’s ability to deal with conflicts and express their feelings in a healthy, constructive manner.

This can impact their relationships beyond the family, affecting friendships and future work relationships.

Supporting our teens to find new ways of responding is crucial for their emotional development and well-being.

Teaching them to express their feelings and needs directly and respectfully helps them build stronger, more honest relationships. It also empowers them to deal with conflicts constructively, becoming effective and resilient young people.

teen girl looking at phone

Examples of Passive Aggressive Teen Behaviour

Sophie, 14, often uses negative humor to express her frustration. When her parents set time limits on her video game usage, she might say, “Great, now I’ll have more time to watch the paint dry.” This passive-aggressive statement avoids direct confrontation but clearly shows her displeasure. Such behaviour can stem from a hard time understanding how to express anger in a good way.

Ethan, 16, displays his anger through body language rather than words. When asked to do chores, he might roll his eyes or slam doors, showing passive-aggressive tendencies without making any aggressive statements. This can be a sign of pent-up anger from childhood experiences.

Maya, 13, struggles with expressions of anger and often resorts to passive ways of showing her discontent, like ignoring her parents or giving them the silent treatment when they use parental control apps. This passive-aggressive behaviour indicates a difficulty in dealing with her emotions directly.

Liam, 15, uses common teenage excuses to avoid tasks or responsibilities, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour. When asked to limit his screen time, he might say, “I didn’t hear you,” or “I forgot.” This avoidance can be a reflection of his desire for more freedom.

Tara, 15, subtly challenges authority with passive-aggressive compliance.
When her parents enforce early bedtimes, she adheres strictly, dramatizing her obedience by loudly announcing her bedtime to the family and exaggerating her readiness for sleep. This performance isn’t about respecting rules but rather a silent critique of what she perceives as unreasonable control. It’s a call for autonomy masked as obedience.

Jade, 17, makes passive-aggressive statements towards her aggressive parents, like “Sure, I’ll do it right after you finish your own work.” This reflects her frustration and is a way to express anger without an aggressive confrontation.

Here are some common indicators of passive aggressive behavior in teens:

Common Indicators of Passive Aggressive Behaviour in Teens

  • Ignoring instructions or requests: Your teen may often ignore your requests or instructions, intentionally refusing to comply out of spite.
  • Withholding communication: Passive aggressive teens may withdraw from communication, either by refusing to engage or by giving short, uninformative responses.
  • Playing the victim: Passive aggressive behavior often includes playing the victim, making themselves out to be the injured party in a situation.
  • Sarcasm and criticism: Teens may use sarcasm or indirect criticism to express their angry feelings, often in a disguised or indirect manner.

If you notice these signs in your teen’s behavior, it may be an indication of underlying passive aggressive tendencies.

By understanding these behaviours, you can develop better insight into your teen’s emotions and actions, and implement effective strategies to help them manage their behavior.

a mother and teen son in a heated argument

Strategies for Dealing with Passive Aggressive Behavior in Teens

Dealing with passive aggressive behavior in teenagers can be challenging for parents, but it’s not impossible. Here are some effective strategies to help you manage your teen’s behavior while maintaining a healthy relationship:

1. Encourage Open Communication

Create a safe space for your teen to share their thoughts and feelings, without fear of judgment or reprimand. Listen actively and avoid interrupting or dismissing their concerns. This can help prevent passive aggressive behaviour by fostering a healthy outlet for self-expression.

2. Set Clear Boundaries

Establish clear rules and consequences for breaking them, and communicate them to your teen. This can help prevent passive aggressive behaviour by setting expectations and creating structure.

3. Model Healthy Behaviour

Lead by example and model assertive, direct communication and healthy conflict resolution skills. Make sure your teen knows some conflict and disagreement is okay, and just part of everyday life. Encourage them to use “I” statements, which express their emotions directly without blaming others.

4. Avoid Power Struggles

Don’t get sucked into power struggles with your teen. Instead, focus on finding common ground and working collaboratively to resolve conflicts. This can help prevent passive aggressive behavior by reducing the need for it as a coping mechanism.

5. Practice Empathy

Try to understand your teen’s perspective and acknowledge their feelings, even if you don’t agree with their behaviour. This can help prevent passive aggressive behaviour by promoting a sense of emotional safety and validation.

Remember, dealing with passive aggressive behavior takes time and patience.

If you can implement these strategies consistently and with empathy, you can help your teen develop healthier coping mechanisms and strengthen your relationship with them.

Example: Resolving Parent Teen Conflict Over Passive Aggressive Avoidance

Issue: Teen Delays Cleaning Room

Teen PerspectiveParent PerspectiveResolution
“I hate cleaning my room. Delaying it is my way of showing I don’t want to do it, without starting an argument.”“We want you to learn responsibility and how to maintain a clean environment, which is important for your well-being.”Collaboratively establish a weekly cleaning schedule that respects the teen’s need for autonomy while upholding the value of responsibility. Discuss the importance of a clean space for mental clarity and negotiate a reward system for consistent adherence.
a teen girl and boy arguing

Causes of Passive Aggressive Behaviour in Teens

Passive aggressive behavior in teenagers can stem from a variety of internal and external factors.

Here are some common causes and triggers of passive aggressive behavior in teenagers:

1. Fear of Confrontation

Teens who have trouble expressing their true feelings may resort to passive aggressive behaviour as a way to avoid confrontations.

It can be their way of expressing frustration or anger without directly confronting the person or situation that’s bothering them.

2. Low Self-Esteem

A teen with low self-esteem may not feel confident enough to be assertive or confrontational, so they may resort to passive aggressive behavior as a way to express their feelings indirectly.

teen boy depressed

3. Rebellion

Teens who feel oppressed or controlled may engage in passive aggressive behavior as a way to regain a sense of control.

They may resist rules or requests from authority figures by being uncooperative or intentionally forgetful.

4. Trauma

Teens who have experienced trauma, such as abuse or neglect, may develop passive aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism.

It may be their way of protecting themselves from further emotional pain or harm.

5. Passive Aggression as a Learned Behaviour

Teens who have grown up in households where passive aggressive behavior was the norm may adopt this behavior as their way of dealing with conflicts or expressing their emotions.

6. Specific Triggers

Passive aggressive behavior can also be triggered by specific situations or events. For example, a teen may become passive aggressive when feeling overwhelmed by academic or social pressures.

teen girl defiant with arms crossed

Seeking Professional Help for Passive Aggressive Teen Behaviour

If you suspect that your teen’s passive aggressive behaviour is becoming unmanageable, it may be time to consider seeking professional help.

A trained therapist or counselor can help your teen identify the underlying issues contributing to their behavior, and develop healthy coping mechanisms and communication skills to express themselves effectively.

Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes courage to acknowledge that you need support.

When selecting a therapist or counsellor, consider their experience working with adolescents, their theoretical orientation, and their overall approach to treatment.

teen boy and dad outside their house having a discussion

Passive Aggressive Teen Behaviour: Conclusions

Dealing with passive aggressive behavior in teenagers requires proactive and empathetic approaches.

Nurturing healthy relationships and addressing underlying issues and conflicts can also help resolve passive aggressive behavior.

Remember, passive aggressive behavior can have negative consequences on relationships, both within the family and with peers. By taking action and addressing the behaviour early on, we can help our teens develop into emotionally mature adults.

Related Articles

Parenting Teen Boys: Solutions for Tough Times

How to Deal With a Difficult Teenager

How Much Freedom Should You Give Your Teenager?

Signs of an Insecure Teenager: Parent Guide

When Your Child Says Hurtful Things: The Best Ways to Respond

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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