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Does Your Child Give You the Silent Treatment? 6 Rules for Getting Kids to Talk

by James Lehman, MSW
Does Your Child Give You the Silent Treatment? 6 Rules for Getting Kids to Talk

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.

 

Here's the simple truth: when you stop responding to the silent treatment, it will die by neglect—and that’s exactly what you want.

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.

The Fourth Rule: Give Your Child Motivation to Comply
Here’s the simple truth: when you stop responding to the silent treatment, it will die by neglect—and that’s exactly what you want. Believe me, kids will get out of the habit of freezing you out if it's not rewarding. And if they want to get something back that they value, they will talk, so always give them motivation to comply.

By the way, if your child agrees to speak with you, but then starts balking, tell him, “Look, if you're not ready to sit down and talk with me, then let's not do it now. Calm down and wait till you’re ready. But until then, no electronics.” So there's some incentive for your child to comply, and you’re also giving him a choice.

Remember, our primary goal as parents is to get kids to comply. The assumption behind this statement is that you have a “good enough” family and home. “Good enough” meaning: all the child’s basic needs are being met. The parents are not abusive to their kids and they don't let their kids abuse each other. There's support for school and schoolwork, there's an interest in how the child is doing and how they're learning. If you have that kind of structure in your home, you certainly do have a right to ask your kids to comply with your rules. Some psychotherapists might not say that you have that right, but I believe you do—and if you don't get compliance, then that should be your goal. Your child doesn't have to like it, and that’s OK. Let’s face it, he's not going to like everything you do as a parent, even when you have his best interests in mind.

The Fifth Rule: Don’t Go to Your Child’s Level
I don't believe that you should ever go to your child's level when it comes to inappropriate behavior. If their best shot at trying to solve a problem is to give you the silent treatment, I don't think you should respond to their broken problem-solving skills by doing the same thing. Similarly, if your child screams at you, screaming back won't solve the problem for either of you. The idea is not to fight fire with fire, but to try something else that’s more effective.
Remember, we don't want to start fights—and when one starts, we want to get out as quickly as possible. Going to your child’s level almost always results in a fight. And you simply cannot win when you're fighting with someone who has nothing to lose. If you give your child the silent treatment in response to his lack of communication, you’re essentially engaging in a fight with him.

The Sixth Rule: Make Participation in Family Life a Requirement
Adolescents go through a stage where they develop a kind of contempt for family living—and they show it. Teens who are better-behaved will be more passive about it. Often they’ll shrug, roll their eyes and say “whatever.” They’re not really being aggressive or abusive, but they’re not engaging with you, either. If you have an adolescent who is acting that way but is still complying with the house rules, I recommend that you just leave it alone.

Now if you want everybody to come to dinner every night, then you have to make that a rule. I think it’s great if your family can do that, but many families can't manage it, and I understand: everybody's working, going to school, doing sports—it's crazy. But if you decide you want to have a sit down dinner every Sunday, for example, require your adolescent child to be there. Expect them to stay for the whole meal. Let them sit there, make faces and say “whatever.” It doesn't matter—just ignore that kind of thing. Again, you don’t want to give those little annoying behaviors power over you or your kids will use them to try to push your buttons. If the behavior becomes more obnoxious, speak with them about it privately and give consequences if they still don’t comply.

So if there's a basic family function, I'd have your child participate. If he's not respectful, I would hold him accountable for that by giving him a consequence. It's his responsibility to behave appropriately. You have the right as a parent to have him comply with that.

 

Here’s the bottom line: If you don't give the silent treatment any power, your child will stop using it because it doesn't get them anywhere. If you make the mistake of giving it power over you, any time your child is frustrated, angry, or upset with you—or encounters a problem they can't deal with—they'll rely on that silent treatment to get their needs met. Instead, you have to coach and teach your child by saying, “Refusing to talk to me won’t solve your problems.” The key is to motivate them to give up that broken problem-solving skill and find an appropriate one that works.

 


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

I no longer have young children, however I really enjoy reading the wisdom of James Lehman. I just wish this was available when my children were small.. He is the best. thanks

Comment By : Peter Anderson

My husband is receiving the silent treatment by his 17 year old daughter entering her Senior year of high school from a previous marriage. She is required to see him at designated times, but refused to abide by those times and just didn't communicate with him when she would arrive and leave. Therefore, he told her that if she didn't want to spent time with him, then she didn't have to. When she was ready to spend time with him, he would be available. Since then, she has been silent, not responding to phone calls or text messages. Unfortunately, he and his ex do not communicate at all. He has done nothing wrong except for asking her to abide by simple acts of respect and she refuses to do that. Unfortunately, he cannot give her consequences because she doesn't live with him. Since she is not seeing him, she receives nothing from him besides child support which is paid faithfully to her mother. Do you have any suggestions??? Please help!

Comment By : Silent Partner

everything I have read in these news magazines, I have found very helpful. I don't know of anything better that works. thanks.

Comment By : mimi

This is a great article.Very very helpful.I had a Mom and a husband who did this so I know how incredibly frustrating it is. I now know how I could have dealt with it better and if my kids learn it I will know what might help.

Comment By : Barb Davis

Hello "Silent Partner" I am running into the exact same thing with my 16 yr old daughter, she does not live with me so I cannot take away the electronics. It is by far one of the most painful things I have gone through as a parent. What should I do Dr. Lehman? JM

Comment By : JM

How do you handle a child who has to have the last work in any conversation?

Comment By : Granny

This may seem ridiculous but I'm having this problem with my married son. His wife is very rude to me and after a few years of taking her abuse I told her that it hurs me and asked her why she hates me so. She claimed innocence and got my son involved and now he, she and the children will have nothing to do with me. This is a pattern that comes out of his childhood. I feel badly and am willing to forget and forgive but feel that if I contact them it gives them more power. Any suggestions?

Comment By : Louise

What should I do if one of my best friend's children (boy 13) is openly disrespectful toward me? I speak to him politely and he jerks his head and shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes but doesn't answer. This is on a regular basis. He used to be very curteous then for no apparent reason his behaviour changed. I asked if there was a problem I didn't know about, then mentionned it to his parents when he persisted in the behaviour. Was I wrong to speak to his parents?

Comment By : Batabba

Dear Granny: Great question, and I have the perfect article for you on this topic. Please read "I'm Right and You're Wrong" Is Your Child a Know-it-all?. Good luck!

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

* Dear Batabba: Those are good ideas — to speak directly to the teenager regarding your experience and then, because his behavior persisted, to his parents. There’s nothing wrong with letting people know that their behavior makes you uncomfortable. Once you have done that, they can choose whether or not they are willing to change. James Lehman recommends that we require our children to be polite in social situations. That’s different then requiring them to like someone. For example, you don’t have to like your teacher, but you have to speak to them appropriately. This teen may have decided that he is no longer interested in talking to his parent’s friends, but he should learn a polite way to get out of discussions. You have done what you can to alert your friends of the problem. Now they will decide what they require from their son. If the parents tell you they will try to work on this with their son and ask you to tell them if it occurs again, let them know when it does. If they do not invite you to help and their son continues to have an attitude toward you and refuses to have conversations with you, you have some decisions to make. If you choose to still interact with this family, you have the right to tell anyone when their behavior is not acceptable to you. But if this teen's parents are not requiring him to change his attitude, I would only address abusive speech or gestures at this point and let the eye rolling and shrugs go if you can. Here’s where you would use James’ third rule: Reach Out Once, Then Leave Your Child Be. Perhaps you will choose to not socialize with the family when he’s around but I hope this situation changes for you and you’re able to find a way to be comfortable visiting with your friends. Thanks for your question. Keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

What if your child is 23 and still using the silent treatment toward his older brother? He is smarter now and is more passive about how he does it, leaves the room when older brother enters, looks away when older brother joins into the conversation and then denies it and says we are misreading his actions.

Comment By : to old for this

ok this is wrong. im a teen, im 16. i give my parents the silent treatment when i want them to leave me the hell alone because they dont deserve my time. even if i didnt do something wrong. when my parents piss me off by calling me a bad name or something i just stop talking to them. its so i dont snap. it allows me to keep my cool.

Comment By : teenagerWhoKnows

teenagerwhoknows is a bad representation of the teen population. I use the silent treatment because my dad has a horrible temper and gets angry over nothing. Things that a normal persson would dismiss as a joke and laugh at, he gets defencive over and starts yelling and being hostile. My reason for using the silent treatment is just because any thing i say could anger my father and start a disagreement. These disagreements usually will end with me making a valid point and getting in trouble because he can not accept when he is wrong. I do admit that sometimes he is right and i am wrong however.

Comment By : Spencer

5

Comment By : good stuff

Spencer, I also use the silent treatment because my mom would blow up at the smallest things. I found that the silent treatment helped me prevent her from prolonging her outbursts and I found it as a way to keep as much peace as possible. Even if I tried to reason with her or even comply, she wouldn't really stop; however, now she no longer does that and I now use the silent treatment whenever problems come up between me and my parents. If they can't get me to talk then they pretty much just leave me alone and it can last quite a while. I want to talk to them, but I just end up keeping it in..its like my mouth is glued shut.

Comment By : Michelle

My 14 year old son is nasty to me from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed. He just started this one day for no reason. Both his father and I have tried to talk to him about it, but he just tells my husband that I ask him too many questions and I am annoying. He goes out of his way to make it known that he is ignoring me. He has never been a very social child and sees his few friends only occasionally. He is not interested in sports, although he does take tennis lessons. taking electronics away has absolutely no effect on this behaviour. He has a twin sister who is the complete opposite and she even tells him to stop being rude. I am trying to get an appt. with a therapist as this is ruining family dinners, vacation, etc. I have yelled and I am guilty of giving him the same treatment. Nothing works and I am very worried.

Comment By : Joce

* Dear Joce: A bad attitude is a tough thing to tolerate in teens. Sometimes it helps to figure out the difference between what’s an unacceptable attitude and must be addressed and what displays of attitude you can let go. (See: Does Your Child Give You the Silent Treatment? 6 Rules for Getting Kids to Talk). As you say, your son is not a social person, only interacts with friends occasionally and has chosen a sport that is not a ‘team sport’. Is it possible that you and he have very different temperaments? Perhaps some of the time when it feels like he’s ignoring you, he simply needs to be alone for awhile. In other words, is there a way to address his concerns regarding what triggers him--that he has difficulty when he feels he is asked too many questions? There is nothing wrong with adjusting ourselves as parents to accommodate our children’s different temperaments. And of course, there is nothing wrong with expecting family members to speak politely to each other. There’s one more angle to consider here that can make family dinners and vacations tense, and that is if his twin is viewed as the “good kid” and he’s seen as the “bad kid”. For ideas on handling this challenging family dynamic read: Sibling Rivalry: Good Kid vs. Bad Kid. Keep in touch with us and let us know if we can answer more questions. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am finding these posts so helpful in keeping myself balanced. We are not alone and there ARE techniques that work! The hardest for me was shutting down my "neediness". I needed my child to love me to feel that life was OK. So for more than a decade, life has not been OK! I am dealing with a 30 year old who's been acting out for 15 years, blaming me for every bit of his own bad judgment. For years I tried to help, micromanaging to save him from disasters. wrong! I'm hanging in there as an available, but relatively silent sounding board and try to keep my emotions on the sideline. I think sometimes we confuse our older children with the beautiful babies they once were. It's hurts to turn your back on your children but you need to take care of yourself and protect your heart. My experience has been that most relationships come around over time - I mean years & years in some cases and it's painful, but where there is life, there's hope. I wish everyone the best.

Comment By : Jayne

my son is a 15 years old he gave me the silent treatment and often blaming us. now he skip school. i keep his electronic he will went out to cyber cafe to continue his games. cold shoulder to us. whenever he felt uncomfortable he will run away. what is yr advise? pls help

Comment By : bibi

* To “bibi”: We appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us. As James outlines in the article, sometimes the best response to the silent treatment is no response at all. He recommends setting the limit and then walking away, meaning, letting your son know it’s his choice to talk to you or not, but, until he decides to talk to you, a privilege will be put on hold. Granted, if you take away computer or another type of electronic he may be able to access the privilege outside of the house. In that situation, it can be helpful to focus on what you can control, namely, what he has access to within your house. You mention he runs away whenever he feels uncomfortable. It may be helpful to talk with the National Runaway Switchboard about how you can best address this behavior. You can reach this resource at 1-800-786-2929. There is also a two part article James wrote about running away. You can access those articles here: Running Away Part I: Why Kids Do It and How to Stop Them & Running Away Part II: "Mom, I Want to Come Home." When Your Child is on the Streets. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to address this behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My son (12) clams up tight when I try to have a discussion with him, but he also gets very emotional when I give him a consequence, and tries to wheedle his way out of it. I expect that if I tell him the silent treatment won't solve his problems and that he'll have a consequence until he's ready to talk, he will immediately become highly emotional and insist that he's ready to talk right now. That's a problem because he can't communicate now since he's freaking out, but if I refuse to talk to him it's like I'm changing my story: "You get a consequence because you won't talk to me now" "I won't let you talk to me now". He will feel like he's trapped in a consequence that he can't get out of because I won't listen to him while he's emotional. How could I avoid or get out of this bind? It would be great to have a tool for this situation because I want to have real communication more than anything else, and right now it just doesn't happen.

Comment By : SadDad

* To “SadDad”: I can see how it could feel like you’re consequencing your son by not having the conversation because he’s too emotional. From our standpoint, it is going to be most effective if the conversation happens at a time when everyone is calm. Another way you might present this to your son would be to say something like “The silent treatment isn’t going to solve your problem. This is something we need to talk about. When you’re ready to talk about this calmly, I’ll be here. Until then, no video games.” As James discusses in the article, sometimes kids will say they’re ready even though they’re not. If you start to have the conversation with him and he is still too emotional, you can say to him “I can see you’re not ready to talk about this yet. Take some time to calm down and then we’ll come back to this. Until then, no video games.” At this point, you will probably have to walk away and not give any more attention to his behavior. Something to keep in mind is most kids aren’t going to be happy with consequences. It’s not unusual for a child to try to negotiate, wheedle, manipulate or act out in an attempt to get out of the consequence. Not responding to these behaviors can be an effective tool in helping you be an empowered parent. Another article that may be useful for you is The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems" We hope this information is helpful for you. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this situation. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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