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A parent-child ‘passive war’

Your child may try to get back at you by simply shutting you out, without getting violent. James Lehman hands out coping tips in this power game

education Updated: Apr 07, 2010 09:43 IST

Passive resistance is when kids learn to develop power over their parents by resisting them. It’s the opposite of aggression: instead of threatening or yelling at you, a passive-aggressive child simply doesn’t answer you. He just walks into the house, goes upstairs and doesn’t say anything. When you call him up, he pretends not to hear you; instead, he makes you come upstairs. Understand that this is one way for a child to have power, and many become experts at this kind of passive-aggressive behaviour.

These are kids who generally don’t know how to communicate well or solve the problems associated with anger or anxiety. It’s important to understand that while some kids with behaviour disorders get angry and act out, these kids get angry and act in. Understand that I’m not talking about passive personalities — I’m talking about passive resistant behaviour. These are kids who use resistance as a way to get back at you, and to gain control or power. They’re the kids who say, “I don’t want to do what Mom wants me to do, but I won’t confront her. I’ll just drag my feet until she leaves me alone.” Or he’ll blow you off until he frustrates you and in his mind, if he annoys you and you start yelling, he wins. After all, you lost control, and he didn’t.

I think parents really need to be on top of this kind of behaviour. There’s a concept in the mental health field called ‘learned helplessness’ which is very important for parents to understand. This is where kids learn that if they act helpless, eventually someone else will do the job for them. They learn that if they resist long enough, you’ll do the dishes yourself. Or if they shut down when you ask them to mow the lawn, you’ll still give them $15 when they need it.

Bit by bit, your expectations are lowered until you don’t have expectations anymore. But realise that once you do this, you’re only setting your child up for failure. Really, childhood and adolescence is the time in your child’s life when he needs to grow and learn. If you let them off the hook with few responsibilities, they simply won’t gain the skills they need to move on to adulthood. Even though they may feel like they’re getting away with something, they’re actually falling into a trap that will be very hard for them to climb out of later.

I think from the time your kids are young, you need to encourage them to voice anger or hostility appropriately. You can say, “Just like parents get angry sometimes, it’s okay for kids to get angry, too.” I think it’s healthy to let your child see you angry and then see you get over it and resolve the conflict.

Remember, the idea is not to never get angry as a parent — the idea is to be a good role model for your child. In my opinion, if you can’t handle your anger and simply hold it in all the time or on the other hand, if you’re explosive, your child may not learn how to handle anger effectively, either.

It’s important to find out if your child’s anger or anxiety is getting in the way, if he understands the assignment he’s procrastinating on, or if he’s having problems at school.

Certainly we want to rule out things like depression, thyroid problems, or other factors that might be contributing to this behaviour. If you think there are physiological causes for your child’s behaviour, have him assessed by a trained medical professional as soon as possible.

Here are tips for helping your child when he’s avoiding something.

Compartmentalise the assignment: When your child thinks an assignment or task is too big, you can help him as a parent by teaching him how to compartmentalise tasks. You can say, “Let’s get this much done tonight.” Or “Let’s get this much of the project done this week.” A good way to handle this is to ask your child, “How much do you think you can get done tonight? How much do you think you can get done this week?” That way, you’re teaching him how to plan. If he comes back with something that’s too little, you need to say, “No, I don’t think that’s enough. I think you’re selling yourself short. Why don’t you try to do this much instead?” If he gives you an amount that sounds too big, just say, “That sounds like an awful lot to me. It may not be realistic.

Let’s see how much you get done in an hour and then re-evaluate it.” So you help him learn how to moderate himself and get organised.

Use hurdle help: Get your child started on something that he’s having a hard time with on his own. So for example, if it’s an English assignment, ask him some questions about what he’s writing about. You might give him a sentence to begin the project. I’m not suggesting you do the assignment for him, rather, you get him over the first hurdle and let him take it from there.

Keep distractions to a minimum: Keep the bedroom door open and the music off when your child is doing schoolwork. Check in on him intermittently to make sure he’s actually doing the work. Reduce distractions.

When kids use passive resistance to be non-compliant: When kids use passive-aggressive behaviour to get away with not following through on their responsibilities, I believe you need to be very firm with them. There are definitely things you can do to improve this kind of behaviour, but whatever you do, keep your ‘good enough’ parenting skills in place. You want to have an open mind and be objective. When you’re angry and frustrated by your child’s behaviour, remind yourself that he’s only your child being annoying — even if he seems like a monster at that moment.

Remember, passive-aggressive behaviour is an ineffective coping skill. In order for a child to stop using it, they have to learn an effective coping skill with which to replace it.

Tell your child the consequences of inaction and set time limits: Sit down and talk to your child when things are going well. Tell him straight out what you see happening — that he’s not producing enough, striving enough or pushing himself enough. Then tell him what the consequences will be from now on. Inform him that you’re going to set time limits on what has to be done, and if he doesn’t meet that time limit, then he’s going to lose his phone or computer until it’s done.

Build in rewards: Train your child that there’s a reward for putting in effort and getting the task done early and pushing himself. Meeting his timelines would be one of the goals. For example, if he has all his homework done the night before, finishes breakfast without dawdling, gets ready for school and gets to the bus on time in the morning, he gets a reward. You might let him stay up a half- an-hour more.

Invite your passive-aggressive child to talk about his anger: If you think your child is being passive-aggressive because he gets angry and can’t voice his feelings, invite him to talk about those things. Just say, “If you’re angry about something, it’s safe to talk to me.” And I think ‘safe’ is an important word here. Say, “It's okay if you feel angry or afraid, but continuing this behaviour won’t solve the problem. Talk to me. I’ll try to hear you. But I expect you to do the work whether you’re angry or not. Being angry is no excuse.” Parents can also train kids by directly stating what they see happening: “I think you’re not loading the dishwasher because you’re angry that I didn’t let you stay out last night late. And I want you to know that I understand that — but it’s not a justification. You still have to do the dishes. And if they’re not done by eight o’clock, I’m taking the keyboard out of your room.”

Remember, expectations have to remain clear. Whatever happens, your child has to learn how to perform, how to produce, and how to survive in life — that’s all there is to it. Too much excuse-making has come into our culture, and too many people have been allowed to get away with not keeping up with their responsibilities. You see people at 35 who have had mediocre jobs that they don’t like all their life and they can’t get ahead. They have no skills because no one ever made them follow through and do the work. I think that very clearly, the message has to be, “You have to learn to take care of yourself and meet your responsibilities. You’re accountable.”

Do we want to be understanding? Yes. Do parents need extra training for kids like this? Often they do. But nonetheless, the responsibility is ultimately on the child to grow up and learn how to live in our society and on the parents to teach him how to do it.

Excerpts from Passive-Aggressive Child Behaviour: Hidden Anger in Kids, reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com.

James Lehman is a behavioural therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled children and teens for three decades. James holds a Masters degree in social work from Boston University.