7 clever ways to handle a passive-aggressive family member

Do you ever feel like you’re starring in a silent film

You know what I mean… 

Those old black-and-white movies before “the talkies” became a thing. 

It could be a comedy, thriller, drama, or western – typically featuring a dastardly villain with a handlebar mustache and a damsel in distress.

But (most importantly) there were no words. 

Here’s the thing.

When you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive person, there’s no soundtrack to set the pace or subtitles to give you a hint. 

Just eyes like daggers and if you’re lucky, a lackluster groan. 

So what do you do when someone’s giving you the silent treatment? Well, here are seven clever ways to handle a passive-aggressive family member. 

Read on to find out more.

1) Recognize the signs

Maybe it began with a subtle pout, an audible sigh, or a visible eye roll. 

Perhaps it was something less discreet. 

A slammed door, a backhanded compliment, or their signature move – the silent treatment! 

Does any of this ring a bell?

If so, chances are, you’re dealing with a passive-aggressive person


No one would blame you for assuming passive-aggressive people are terrible communicators.

Because let’s face it, they are.  

But the truth is, they are saying something, just in an indistinct and roundabout way. That means it’s down to you to identify the signs. 

Most importantly, you need to ask yourself…

“Is there a pattern forming here?”

Once you’re able to crack the code and recognize that, yes, there’s a problem, you can then work on figuring out the solution. 

Not only that, but you can nip that behavior in the bud before it mushrooms.

One way to do this is to…

2) Read between the lines

Have you ever had someone say they’re fine when they’re clearly not?

It’s annoying, right? 

Most of all it’s toxic, and it’s particularly difficult when it’s a family member. 

But don’t let that defeat you.

Instead of getting flustered or frustrated, you need to channel your inner detective and decipher the hidden meaning behind that salty exterior.

Let me explain. 

At first, it may seem like they’re trying to be polite. But it doesn’t take long for the subtle digs and sarcastic comments to begin. 

Obviously, something’s wrong – they’re just not saying what.

When faced with this kind of behavior, it’s important to take a moment and analyze the subtext.

Ask yourself, “What’s the real issue here?”

By understanding the underlying message, you’re able to gain the upper hand and hash it out – together.

The best way to do that is…

3) Start a conversation (and be clear)

Passive-aggressive people hate conflict and they’ll do anything in their power to avoid it. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less upset. 

They just have poor conflict-resolution skills. 

That’s why it’s important to choose your words carefully and express them in a non-judgemental manner. 

Basically, be assertive while also keeping things relaxed and open.

The last thing you want to do is single them out or put them on the spot. That’s only going to escalate things. 

One way to do this is by avoiding personal (or accusatory) pronouns such as “you” or “your.” Instead, be more inclusive. 

For example…

By starting a conversation with “we” or “us” you’re not only depersonalizing the problem, but you’re taking the spotlight off of them. 

In other words, it alleviates some of the tension while also keeping the conversation on track when confronting them. 

Another way to do this is to…

4) Ask direct questions

Passive-aggressive individuals are vague, to say the least. So when it comes to getting to the bottom of things, it pays to be direct and assertive.

Take this scenario, for instance.

You’re getting ready to go out. Hair done, outfit on, coat in hand. For all intents and purposes, you’re ready to let your hair down and party.

But just as you’re about to step out of the door your brother stops you in your tracks and quips, “Well, that’s an interesting choice.”

Now, there are a few ways you can go about this. 

You could quickly run upstairs and change, leave the house (as planned) but spend the evening wondering what on earth he meant, or you could flip the script. 

By that I mean, be direct and ask, “What exactly do you find interesting about it?” 

All with a smile on your face, of course.

This direct question forces him to elaborate further and articulate his thoughts. As a result, it removes any ambiguity from the situation. 

5) Mirror, don’t magnify

Now this next one is a little controversial and it won’t work for everyone. But my mother always taught me that laughter was the best medicine. 

Especially when it comes to family.

And what better way to disarm passive-aggressive behavior than by injecting a dose of humor into the situation? 

One way to do this is through the art of mirroring.

What’s that? I hear you cry.

Simply put, it’s reflecting their behavior back at them through mirror-like mimicry. 

For example… 

If your dad says, “Oh, nice of you to finally join us,” counter with a smile and a casual, “Thanks, I like to be fashionably late.”

Just remember to keep it light, don’t take it too seriously, and avoid amplifying the tension.

A great way to do this is to…

6) Counter with positivity

I’m sure you’ve heard of the old proverb, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Well, this also applies when communicating with a passive-aggressive family member. 

I know, I know…

It’s difficult to regulate your emotions (and be nice) when someone’s muttering loosely veiled insults under their breath 

But a bit of positivity can go a long way. 

So, instead of fighting fire with fire, try turning the tables and counter that snide remark with a genuine compliment.

Not just that, but listen.

According to experts, using positive language can benefit both you and the recipient. Not only does it help resolve conflict and improve communication but it may increase optimism in others.

The same goes for giving compliments.

By being receptive and understanding to their qualms you’re validating their feelings by making them feel heard. 

First and foremost, though. You need to…

7) Keep calm (and carry on)

When engaging with a passive-aggressive family member, sometimes, the best response is no response at all. 

Or to put it another way…

Don’t let the snarky comments, backhanded compliments, or unfriendly behavior get to you. 

Because let’s face it. 

As soon as you’ve lost your cool, they’ve won. 

Instead, by keeping calm and not overreacting you’re sending a clear message that their terrible behavior isn’t going to get them anywhere. 

It also helps you to set boundaries in the future. 

The same goes for rewarding them when they are being assertive. It teaches them how to communicate their feelings better moving forward.

At the end of the day, passive aggression is typically a learned behavior, so it’s important to have an empathetic mindset

That said…

Until they acknowledge their aggressive conduct, all you can do is focus on yourself and how you respond. 

And always remember, you can’t choose your family! But you should tolerate them.

Leila El-Dean

Leila is a passionate writer with a background in photography and art. She has over ten years of experience in branding, marketing, and building websites. She loves travelling and has lived in several countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and Malta. When she’s not writing (or ogling cats), Leila loves trying new food and drinking copious amounts of Earl Grey tea.

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