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Raised in a Passive-Aggressive Family

Find me a family that has no anger in it, and I’ll dig out their anger and show it to them.

That’s my job. I’m a therapist.

Every family has anger. It’s unavoidable in life and in a family, simply because it is literally wired into our brains. It’s a part of our physiology, just like our eyelashes, elbows and toes.

There are many ways that families can handle anger, depending on their comfort with it.

They can wield anger as a weapon, figuratively hitting each other over the head with it; they can push it underground; or they can ignore it and pretend it does not exist.

Or they can use it the way nature intended; as a means to drive truth, and connect family members in a genuine, real and meaningful way.

Three Types of Anger-Uncomfortable Families

  • The Anger as a Weapon Family: In this family, anger is used by one or more members as a source of power. Anger may be expressed in a variety of aggressive ways, such as yelling, insults or barbed comments; by throwing things, breaking things, or other physical intimidation or threats.

The Lesson the Children Learn: The angriest person wins.

  • The Underground Anger Family: This family views anger as unacceptable or even bad. Angry feelings are viewed as unloving, uncaring or rebellious, and are met with negativity or punishment.

The Lesson the Children Learn: Anger is bad. If you feel angry, you are bad. Do not talk about it.

  • The Ignoring Anger Family: This family treats anger as if it doesn’t exist. When a member of the family shows anger, it receives little reaction. Anger is invisible.

The Lesson the Children Learn: Anger is useless. Don’t bother with it. Do not talk about it.

None of the children growing up in these three types of families has an opportunity to learn much about anger: how to listen to its message, manage it, express it, or use it in a healthy way. By definition all of these children are growing up in an emotionally neglectful family.

But lets focus in particular on The Underground and the Ignoring Families. These two family types are similar in that all of the children growing up in them are receiving this message: When something upsets you…

Don’t talk 

Don’t talk 

Don’t talk 

That’s what makes both types of families breeding grounds for passive-aggression.

Since anger is wired into the human brain, it exists in every human being, whether we want it or not. When you are in an environment that is chronically intolerant of this particular emotion you naturally, automatically suppress your angry feelings whenever they arise. This causes some major problems for you, and in your family.

Pushing anger down is like pushing water down. It has to go somewhere. So it may seep underground and sit there, or it may go slightly under the surface, and ripple and roil, waiting for a chance to spew.

In these two types of anger-intolerant families, the anger goes underground, but it does not disappear. It stays there. And it has to come out somehow, sometime, in some way; and probably directed at someone.

Enter passive-aggression.

Passive-aggression: The indirect expression of anger and resentment, fueled by feelings that are not talked about directly.

Molly felt anxious and uncomfortable as she sat eating dinner with her family. She was acutely aware that her parents refused to speak to each other or make eye-contact.

Joel’s dad was an hour late to pick him up after soccer practice. As Joel sat on the curb waiting, he found himself wondering if his dad was angry about the argument they had the night before.

Jessica found it excruciating when her mother gave her the silent treatment. So she took great care to appear unaffected by it.

Many research studies have clearly established a link between passive-aggression between parents, and problems in the children.

One 2016 study by Davies , Hentges, et al., showed that children growing up in such an environment of indirectly expressed, unresolved hostility are more insecure, and take less responsibility for their own problems. They are also more prone to depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.

Another difficult aspect of passive-aggression is that most people are completely unaware of their own passive-aggressive behavior. They are often, also, unaware of their own underground anger and the resentment that’s fueling it.

4 Steps to Become Less Passive-Aggressive

  1. Accept that you have anger. Accept that it’s normal and healthy. Accept that it’s valuable, and that you can use it to make your relationships better.
  2. Increase your anger awareness. Watch for anger in other people. Watch for it in yourself. When you start trying to feel your anger, you’ll start breaking down the wall that blocks it.
  3. Read everything you can about assertiveness. It’s a skill that allows you to express your anger in a way that the other person can take in your message without becoming defensive. Buy a book on it if you can. Then read it!
  4. When something happens that makes you feel angry, take note of the feeling. Practice sitting with it and tolerating it. Apply what you’ve learned about assertiveness.

And when something upsets you… 




To learn more about emotionally neglectful families, see and the book, Running on Empty.

To learn more about assertiveness, read this previous post: Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness.

Photo by Green Smoothies Rock!

Raised in a Passive-Aggressive Family

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2016). Raised in a Passive-Aggressive Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Oct 2016
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