Quote of the Week

"If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way" ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

When a parent gives the teenager the Silent Treatment.
Posted by:Lloyd Woodward--Saturday, October 08, 2016

[This is a reprint of a 2009 post.  One of our readers recently asked a question about this topic, and the response is included in the comments at the end of the post.]

When you ask parents why they give the silent treatment they usually do not admit that they want to cause pain in order to control the teenager's behavior. Instead, they report things like:

"I just needed some time alone to think."
"I thought we both needed a cooling off period."
"I felt hurt by what you did and I just needed to stop communicating."
"I thought you needed some space."
"I didn't want to fight."
"I didn't want to say things that I might regret."

OK, some of these sound good but when you realize that the parent went three days without talking or even acknowledging the teenager's presence, then you can see that this goes way past a cooling off period. A cooling off period is often a good idea but it's going to last an hour not a day. Or at the worst it's going to last the night but not the week.

The bottom line is that the silent treatment is very painful and anytime we heap pain on our loved ones that is disproportionate to the behavior that we are trying to address it causes extreme resentment. Actually, to a parent using this technique it may appear as though it works because the child or teenager may try to do something, anything to try to reopen channels of communication; however, sooner or later this is going to backfire.

In fact, some teens report that they eventually come to like the silent treatment because they become so used to the pain that they just don't care anymore. Once your teenager doesn't care anymore you are in for a whole lot of trouble.

Also, it may be that teenagers who become verbally and physically abusive to their parents are reacting to years of getting the silent treatment. Anecdotal evidence seems to point to the fact that many teens with substance abuse issues have been on the receiving end of the silent treatment. The natural thing that can happen to parents who have regularly treated their children to the silent treatment is that the teenager can start dishing the silent treatment back at the parents. Now we've got a sticky wicket. You could call that bad karma. It is said that children will often fail to do what parents tell them to do, but they will never fail to imitate them. (I don't know who first said that or else I would credit them.)

The silent treatment is a power move. It can work on spouses as well as children but it will backfire on both eventually. Imagine the parent who uses the silent treament regularly and who precieves that it is a ligitimate way to control children. Then, it seems like overnight the parent has a teenager with issues. At that point a frustrated parent may state, "I just wish my teen had more self-confidence." Hello! Everytime this same parent gave the silent treatment the teenager went through feelings of extreme worthlessness. The child or teenager is racked by self doubt. What was it that they did that caused their parent to treat them as though they were dead? In fact, the silent treatment is sort of like a psychological death. The parent might as well have said, "You are dead to me!"

At Parent Survival Skills meetings we are all about parents asserting power; however, we only recomend that the parent use the amount of power necessary to get the behavior of the child back on track and we never approve of phyiscal or psychological abuse. It is never appropriate and it causes extreme resentment that will always cause the resentful chickens to come home to roost. Like yelling, it is counterproductive and seems to produce some of the same problems, e.g. it helps the child or teen to become an angry person who has low self esteem. An angry person with low self esteem is going to be much harder to deal with than someone who is not angry all the time and who feels good about themselves.

Most parents who use this technique learned it from their parents. They also use it on their spouses. Read what some others have said about the silent treatment:

The Silent Treatment - What You Are Saying By Not Saying Anything At All

Parents Are Using the Silent Treatment to Discipline Their Children

The Silent Treatment - A Form of Abuse
- Patricia Jones, M.A.


Anonymous said...

This is so true!! It is like torture or abuse to do the silent treatment on someone, especially someone with a drug problem or a dual diagnoses. I went through that with my ex husband who wouldnt talk to me for a week at a time, it is horrible to do to anyone.

Anonymous said...

My son is a great kid never been in trouble at school or home always loved and talked up to his father (we not together ). The father is upsey because he decided my son is " uncaring" my sons crime ? - he didn't call his father to check on his sick Aunt .
It's been months since the dad has contacted him . I've been in the hospital sick for months off - my son is an only child - the father STILL won't contact him even though I begged him to from my hospital bed

As the other article states below the silent treatment it is abuse and it is effecting my son . He is damaging a great kid his own son with this power play and I don't know what I can do to mediate the situation or help my son realize his fathers cruelty is no ones fault but his own .

Anonymous said...

(Thanks to Lloyd for this thought-provoking reply to the question posed by Anonymous, above.)

When stressful situations like this arise it is difficult to remember that the only person you can really change is yourself. On top of that it sounds as though both your husband and your son have placed you in the middle of this stressful situation. Because you are a caring person and mother, you have accepted responsibility for straightening out the relationship between the two men. In a way, your husband is not out of contact with your son, but rather he communicates with your son through you.

I am wondering what would happen if you no longer acted as a conduit. Perhaps they would work things out. Perhaps not. Either way your son will not derive his entire self-image from this current silent treatment. No doubt you are listening to your son when he expresses his feelings about his father. Continue to do this and trust that something good will come of it, even if it is just that your son learns that it is not him but it is his father who has dropped the ball on the relationship. I realize that this may sound callous or uncaring. Or it may seem like no advice at all. Still, the power of changing one's self can often set in motion changes in others. For example, if you give yourself a vacation from being the middle man in their relationship it might help you feel better. If they try to drag you back in you can say things like, "that would a good thing to say to your father," or "I don't have the power to make your father change and unfortunately neither do you." "I'm glad that you realize that it's not your fault that your father is giving you the silent treatment."

Your son did not cause the problem with his father. He also can't fix the problem if his father persists. These are the points that you can make with him that might do some good.

Referring yourself and/ or your son for counseling probably would not hurt, although you may find that if you extricate yourself from the middle of their problem you feel better about the situation.


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