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What To Do When Your Teen Shuts You Out

Is your teenager shutting you out? In other words, she won’t talk to you – and she ignores you when you try to talk to her. You know something is bothering your teen, but she’s not going to tell you what it is. She’s either mad at you or someone else – but in the meantime, you’re getting the cold shoulder.

A teenager may use the silent treatment as a way to freeze parents out, to get them to leave her alone, and to push their buttons. What most moms and dads don’t realize is that, under the surface, something else is going on.

In general, most silent treatment is an indication of poor communication skills. The teen can’t solve her own problems, and as a result, she becomes resentful toward her parent(s). Some silent treatment indicates an inability to articulate one’s feelings during parent-child conflict. These teens are sometimes referred to as “emotionally shut-down.” Silent treatment intended to inflict emotional punishment is present in the teenager who has “shutdown,” especially if she has anger management issues (e.g., "You made me angry, so now I am going to punish you").

How parents can cope when their teen is shutting them out:

1. Avoid trying to find a logical explanation for your teen’s strange behavior. Sometimes it's better to simply view it as “a teenage phase” and not take it personally.

2. Be sure NOT to use the silent treatment on your teen to “show her how it feels.” This rarely improves communication.

3. Don't blame yourself for it. The silent treatment is a poor choice of communication strategy – and that is not your choice.

4. Express how this treatment makes you feel, but do it at a time when your teen appears to be in a decent mood. When things are calm, let your teenager know that you do sincerely want to work things through, but if that's not going to happen in the near future, you may not continue "volunteering" to be frozen out (e.g., "It really hurts that you're shutting me out, and I wish you would talk to me so we could put this behind us. If this continues much longer, I'm going to need to stop waiting and just assume that you simply want to be left alone. I don't want to do that, which is why I'm telling you now.").

5. Make sure you're not simply over-reacting. Sometimes, it's not about you at all. Perhaps your teen is being quiet because she is having personal problems – but doesn’t want to confide in you. If this is the case, you shouldn't take it personally. Perhaps back off a bit and leave some space. However, withdrawing from friends can be a feature of depression, so sometimes reaching out may be exactly what your teenager needs.

6. Never make the mistake of reacting in anger to your teen’s cold shoulder. Your “reacting” gives her power over you. When your teen is angry or upset with you (or encounters a problem she can't fix), she may rely on the silent treatment as a poor attempt to get her needs met. Thus, you have to coach her by saying something like, “Ignoring me and refusing to talk won’t solve your problems.” The key is to motivate your teen to give up that broken problem-solving strategy and find an appropriate one that actually works.

7. Question your own behavior. When did the silent treatment start? What happened that day or in the days just before the behavior changed? Could you have done or said something insensitive? Try to understand what could have set-off the silence. Narrow it down to a few possibilities and try to think of ways you can work on the situation.

8. Rehearse what you're going to say in the event you want to confront your teen on the matter. You want to feel like you said what you needed to say, so plan it ahead of time. It's easy to get defensive, or to come off the wrong way if you aren't prepared. Close your eyes and imagine you're alone with your teenager and say out loud what you want to say. Listen to the way you make your statement and adjust your tone if need be.

9. Spend some time away from your teenager if needed, especially if you are feeling emotionally drained from the lack of communication. Time away from her may help her realize how important the relationship is to her, prompting her to initiate speaking to you again.

10. Stay positive. Subconsciously or consciously, the giver of the silent treatment WANTS to see you upset. So, try your best to stay out of her way and be positive (e.g., when you attempt to strike up a conversation, but all you’re met with is a cold shoulder, simply respond by going to the other room to watch some TV).

11. The silent treatment is about control.  It only works if the parent relinquishes control to the teenager who is being silent.  The more you try to get your teen to break her silence, the more you are allowing yourself to be controlled by her, and the less likely it is that she will talk.  After all, you are giving her exactly what she wants: control. She is likely to keep the silent treatment going if she knows it is bothering you, or use it again in the future when she feels the need to get revenge.

12. Try setting some serious emotional boundaries. This can be the hardest part: after you have apologized and attempted to understand what is going on, you have done your part. Now, it is up to your teenager to step up and begin communicating with you. If she does not, that is her decision. You can’t fix this without cooperation from her.

There are all sorts of motives for – and styles of – the silent treatment, but they all boil down to one commonality: a teen gives the silent treatment to her parents because it gives her a feeling of control over them. Maybe the best thing a parent can do in this situation is to try to find a better way for the teenager to feel like she has some control over her life.

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