Dealing With Your Child's "Silent Treatment"

A youngster or teenager who uses the silent treatment does so as a way to shut parents out – and push their emotional buttons. The silent treatment also gives the youngster a feeling of power and control over the parents. And the more parents make an issue of this form of emotional abuse, the more the youngster uses this strategy.

Often times, the silent treatment is the only problem-solving technique your child has at that moment (i.e., he or she is trying to deal with a particular problem by using a passive-aggressive approach). By avoiding eye contact and discussion, your child has found a way of getting the upper hand.

So what can parents do? Here are 10 tips for dealing with your child's silent treatment:

1. Don’t fall into the “reaction trap.” Many parents take the silent treatment personally; they feel powerless as a parent and react with anger and threats. This is exactly what your child wants. When you get mad and lose it, your child wins – and he/she knows it. Also he/she will kick-up the silent treatment to a whole new level now that it has been reinforced by your over-reaction.

2. Let your child know that the silent treatment is ineffective. First, parents can respond with, “Ignoring me doesn’t solve the problem. You are not to leave the house or engage in any recreational activities until we discuss this matter. Take all the time you need. If you want to talk about it, let me know.” This statement sends a very clear message to your child that (a) his/her silence doesn’t give him/her more power or control and (b) there is a consequence for avoiding addressing the problem. Second, parents should leave the ball in the child’s court at this point. Let the deafening silence run its course – and it will die by default. Your child will eventually realize that this tactic did not help achieve the desired objective.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

3. Don’t stoop to your child’s level. In other words, don’t try to be smart and use some reverse psychology by giving him/her the silent treatment in return. It won’t work! Besides, that’s what your child wants – for you to SHUT UP! So, use the strategy outlined in point #2 above, then – and only then – can you let silence reign. You have the upper hand now, because the more your child refuses to talk, the longer he’s grounded.

4. Make the first move. After you have completed steps 1 and 2 above, and at least an hour has elapsed, you can (in one very short sentence) state in a calm voice, “Do you want to talk about it yet?” If you just get more silence, simply go on about your business and try again in another hour. If he/she says something – anything – then try to keep the conversation going.

5. Give your youngster some space to sort out his/her feelings. Don’t try to force him/her to talk, and don’t cajole, threaten or give into his/her demands. Instead, a brief separation may give him/her time to think through the situation. The silent treatment can last a long time in teens, so be patient with the process.

6. Maintain your routine. Proceed with family life and family activities throughout your youngster's silent treatment. That way, he/she doesn’t hold the family hostage with his/her emotional blackmail and manipulative behaviors. If you have regular, fun family outings planned, your youngster may be motivated to begin speaking to fully enjoy the activity.

7. Remember who has legitimate authority. The silent treatment is a power-play, and as the mother or father – you have all the power. So never take the silent treatment personally. Instead, view it as a learning opportunity for your youngster. Remember, you are getting the silent treatment because your youngster has not yet learned more appropriate ways of solving his/her problems. You can help him/her learn better problem solving methods.

8. Reward positive behavior. If your child’s tactic is unsuccessful in manipulating you, he/she will eventually open up. When that happens, express your empathy (e.g., “I’m sorry we both had to go through this”) and praise him/her for opening up (e.g., “I know you were angry, but the fact that you are speaking to me now tells me that you can be respectful”).

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

9. Begin the process of trouble-shooting using the following guidelines:
  • First: The two of you will only discuss the problem(s) as long as you are both sitting down. If either of you stands up, there is a break so you can both cool down.
  • Second: The parent delivers an assertive message to get the discussion started: When you… (state what the child did), I felt… (an emotion – not a thought ). I’d rather you… (child’s new behavior that replaces old behavior).
  • Third: Ask your child to repeat back what he/she just heard you say.
  • Fourth: If your child does not paraphrase correctly, return to the third step.
  • Fifth: If your child paraphrases correctly, ask open-ended questions and make comments such as: How long will this (problem) last? It must be difficult being you. It must be hard for you to imagine your life being any different. What are you feeling right now? What do you think about what I just said? You look ticked-off, who has been hassling you? How can I help you? What can we do so this problem doesn't happen again?

10. Consider drafting a house-rules contract that stipulates what course of action to take in the case your child uses the silent treatment in the future. For example, “When child refuses to discuss a particular issue, child will be allowed a one hour cooling-off period. After one hour, child will either engage in problem-solving with parent or receive an appropriate consequence.”

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents


  1. Anonymous6:05 AM

    I purchased your program and love it. I do have a quick question for you. What does one do when your gifted 14-year old continuously blames everything on you. For example, if he forgets something, somehow it is my fault. If I am helping him with a homework question and I don't understand what he is explaining, I am stupid. It goes on and on....anything that can be blamed on me, whether it even involves me, is my fault. FYI - He is 14 years old, straight A student, has extremely high expectations for himself and excels at everything he does. But he is persistent, manipulative and drives me nuts. Another example, he didn't put his favorite pencil away so it is my fault that he can't find since I must have moved it. Now he expects me to take him to Walmart so he can get more. HELP-what to do when everything is my fault.


  2. It's not unusual for parents to be blamed by their children for all that goes wrong in the child's life. It's much easier to blame one's parents than to take any ownership of one's problems. This is something he will outgrow. Your understanding and support are needed as he tries to figure out how to accept personal responsibility.

    But your understanding and support do not need to include taking verbal abuse or any other kind of abuse without a response. Your role is not to be the "whipping boy" or to feel compelled to agree with everything your son says or does. Just because "blaming others" is the only way he has to solve his problems currently does not mean that you cannot attempt to have reasonable discussions with him or walk away from him if he is refusing to do anything but blame and yell at you. There should be a consequence for yelling or name calling(but not necessarily for "blaming"). Help him to see his part in the problem without blaming him.

  3. I have a 15 year old that has been using the silent treatment method since elementary school. His father and I are divorced, but we've maintained a very good relationship as it pertains to our kids. My son was doing this even when we were together, so clearly the divorce was not the catalyst.

    My issue is this; my son uses this method for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around his inability to cope with whatever the trigger was that caused the shut down. Today, it's teenage relationship drama. A month ago, he used it when he didn't want to do an assignment at school. Every time this happens, I get a call and consequently miss a day of work.

    I promise, I am not being insensitive to his emotional instability, but the repercussions fall primarily on me since his father travels for his job. Once my son has emerged from his self inflicted conscious sedation, he apologizes up and down, feels awful about the unintentional disrespect and he returns to 'normal' for usually long periods of time.

    We have tried therapy, I have tried the reverse silent treatment, I have explained countless times how his actions can have serious consequences on others (like my job), but 'shut down mode' always makes it way back somehow. I'm at a loss as to what his father and I can do to help him better handle himself when life throws unexpected stones at you.

  4. Anonymous11:36 AM

    My partner's daughter (17 yo) and son (15 yo), both of them after 2.5 years of verbal and even physical abuse they now give me the silent treatmeent. I had to stop the physical and verbal abuse calling the police but what do i do now? This is now lasting for over 4 months so there is no way it can be rebridged, as all efforts to talk to them (her mum and I0 failed. What do we do ?