Kids use the silent treatment as a way to freeze you out, to get you to leave them alone, and to push your buttons. What most parents don’t realize is that under the surface, something else is going on: the silent treatment is giving your child a feeling of power and control over you.
What’s behind your child’s thinking? Usually they’re angry or embarrassed. In fact, often you’ll get the silent treatment when your child has done something wrong and knows it. They use the silent treatment to blackmail you emotionally. The hard part for parents is that the more you make an issue of it or act like it’s painful or annoying to you, the more your child is going to use it to get to you.
I think it’s important for you to realize that if your child gives you the silent treatment, that’s probably the best problem-solving skill he has at that moment. Simply put, he’s trying to deal with whatever issue is at hand by using this passive aggressive behavior. And by withholding information or thoughts, he has found a way of getting the upper hand. This type of passive aggressive behavior is very destructive in relationships later in life—and it’s definitely a pattern that you don’t want to give in to and reward in your child.
The First Rule: Don’t Take It Personally
I think many parents take the silent treatment personally. After all, it’s designed to make you feel powerless as a parent—and parents hate that feeling. Just remember that there’s more power in responding to it the right way than there is in getting into an ego struggle with your child. Avoiding getting into a fight with your child always gives you more control than engaging in it does. Kids really do need to learn to deal with their problems appropriately and take responsibility. And as a parent, you have to let them grow up. If you keep letting the silent treatment affect you by giving in to your child so they’ll be “nice” and talk to you, then you’re falling into the martyr trap. Giving in to them gives them the wrong message.
I believe that one of the lessons kids have to learn as they grow up is what their “right size” is. Your child’s right size is that he’s a human being, and not some huge giant who can control you by withholding. If he’s an adolescent, his right size is that he’s a teen struggling with things that ten million other kids are struggling with. Your role as a parent is to say, “We’ll help you as much as we can, but don’t take it out on us.” And if you give your kids too much power, you’re missing the point—and they’re missing out on a valuable lesson.
The Second Rule: Give Your Child a Clear Message
I think it’s very important that you give your child a clear message when he gives you the silent treatment. You should say, “Not responding to me is not going to solve your problem. When you’re ready to talk about it, I’ll be here.” And here’s the important part: “Until then, no cell phone use.” Or, “Until we talk, no electronics.” That way, your child has a motivation to talk and to solve the problem. And you’re not pressing him or pushing him. Once you make that statement, go on about your business. Don’t let it be a big deal or a stumbling block. Believe me, if you don’t give the behavior power, you’re going to be a lot better off in the long run.
The Third Rule: Reach Out Once, Then Leave Your Child Be
I think it’s fine if you want to check in and reach out to your child if they’re still not talking to you. In our family, my wife would do that with our son, but I didn’t. I always felt that my son didn’t need two of me and he didn’t need two of his mother. He needed one of each of us; that was the balance that worked. Personally, I would urge you not to reach out to your child more than once after you’ve made your statement regarding his lack of communication. Going to your child and pleading with him to talk gives him too much power— and lets him know very clearly that his withholding of communication is getting to you.
By the way, if the silent treatment is a chronic problem with your child, I would suggest that you not reach out at all. Just remind him that his unwillingness to talk is not solving his problem and that you’d love to speak with him when he’s ready—and that you’ll hang onto his cell phone until he is. Try to say this with a look on your face that’s pleasant. Remember, kids get a lot of your message from the look on your face. When my son was growing up, I would always try to wear an expression that said, “Everything’s okay.” At the group home where I worked with behaviorally disordered kids, I never gave in to the urge to yell. I wouldn’t blame or point the finger at them. I’d be just as nice as pie, no matter how frustrated I felt at times. I’d say, “All right, when you’re ready, we’ll talk about it. And until then, no electronics. This will give you some time to think.” And then I’d leave and let them tell me when they were ready to talk. That way, I had the control but they got to decide when they wanted to speak.