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

By James Lehman, MSW

Kids use the silent treatment as a way to get you to leave them alone and to push your buttons. Here is what most parents don’t realize: 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.

(If your child’s silent treatment is sudden and unexplained, be aware that there may be an underlying abuse or a medical issue. See Sudden Behavior Changes in Kids: What Do They Mean?)

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.

Stop responding to the silent treatment and it will die by neglect.

It’s important 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.

The #1 Parenting Tip of All Time

This type of passive-aggressive behavior is very destructive in relationships later in life. It’s a pattern that you don’t want to give in to and reward in your child. Follow these six rules to end the silent treatment.

Rule #1: Don’t Take It Personally

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.

If you take the silent treatment personally, you may end up fighting with your child out of frustration. Don’t do it. Fighting brings you down to your child’s emotional level and tells your child that he controls your emotions. Don’t give your child that power.

Also, if you take the silent treatment personally, you may give in to your child so that they’ll be “nice” and talk to you. Again, don’t do it. It sends the wrong message to your child. You do not want your child to learn that passive-aggressive behavior is an effective or appropriate way to get what he wants.

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. He is not some huge giant who can control you by withholding attention. 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.”

So, don’t take it personally. Don’t give your child’s silent treatment any power.

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Rule #2: Give Your Child a Clear Message

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 pressuring 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.

Rule #3: 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. But be careful. Once is probably enough. Going to your child and pleading with him to talk gives him too much power. It lets him know that his silent treatment 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.

Rule #4: 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 the 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. 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.

Rule #5: Don’t Go to Your Child’s Level

Don’t punish your child by responding to the silent treatment with your own silent treatment. Keep the lines of communication open for your child.

I don’t believe that you should ever go to your child’s level when it comes to inappropriate behavior. Don’t fight your child’s inappropriate behavior with your own inappropriate behavior. If your child screams at you, don’t scream back. And if your child refuses to talk to you, don’t refuse to talk to him.

Remember, we don’t want to start fights. And when one starts (it happens, we’re not perfect), 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.

Rule #6: 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.

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. 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. Give consequences if they still don’t comply.

So if there’s a basic family function, require your child to participate. If he’s not respectful, hold him accountable with an appropriate consequence. It’s his responsibility to behave appropriately. You have the right as a parent to have him comply with that.

Related content: The Complete Guide to Consequences

The Bottom Line

If you don’t give the silent treatment any power, your child will stop using it. It won’t get him anywhere. If you make the mistake of giving it power, 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 inappropriate problem-solving methods and find an appropriate ones that work.

About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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