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.