A big thank you to Mel Crowe for this great article!
Do they do it whenever there’s been an argument or disagreement, which means that instead of talking things through, clearing the air, reaching a compromise, or apologizing, they stop talking to you for a few hours, days or even months?
Is the silent treatment something that happens in your family with other family members from time to time whenever there’s a fall out or disagreement, and you’ve accepted it as a quirky family trait?
If you answered yes to these questions you might think it’s just something odd that happens in your family from time to time.
But you might be surprised to know that receiving the silent treatment is very damaging and it can have a long lasting and devastating impact on you.
Hi I’m Mel. I’m a counsellor in the UK and I specialise in helping people heal and recover from a toxic relationship with a narcissistic or toxic parent, and I would like to take a moment to explain how they use the silent treatment as a way to punish and control their children.
So, What Is The Silent Treatment
Also known as stonewalling, the cold shoulder and ghosting, giving someone the silent treatment means that one person has stopped talking and communicating to another person and it can last for hours, days, weeks, months or even years.
The silent treatment can include:
- Refusing to talk altogether
- Avoiding discussions
- No longer answering your calls texts or messages
- They stop calling and texting
- Acting as if you are not in the room
- Completely ignoring you
- Withholding love and affection
- Treating you as if you are invisible or dead
A parent will usually inflict the silent treatment as a response to:
- You confront them about an issue
- You ask them to take responsibility
- You try to assert a boundary or say ‘No’ to them
- You do something they don’t want you to do or they think you shouldn’t do
- You don’t do something they think you should do
- They want you to appear ostracized from the family for perceived bad behaviour, when they are in fact guilty of behaving badly
The parent might tell you they are not talking to you or they may just stop all communication with you until eventually you realise that all usual contact from them has stopped.
A toxic parent will do this to their child of any age. I have read numerous accounts of and spoken to many people that have said their parent gave them the silent treatment when they were a young child and a teenager, and they still do it to them regularly well into adulthood.
The Two Types Of Parents That Inflict Silent Treatment On Their Children
There are two main reasons why a parent would give their child/adult child the silent treatment: their parent is a narcissist or they are emotionally immature.
The narcissistic parent likes to be in control at all times. They do not like it when you attempt to assert a boundary, say no, or try to have your own mind and do things your own way. The narcissist wants to regain control of the relationship quickly and giving the silent treatment is their favourite tactic to use because they know it is extremely painful for us and that we will do anything to make it stop, including retreating and becoming submissive again in order to restore contact with them quickly. This puts the narcissist back in the position of control and it gives us the clear message to stay in our place if we want to have a relationship with our mum or dad.
The emotionally immature parent/self-absorbed gives the silent treatment for a few reasons. It might be because they want to avoid conflict as they typically feel overwhelmed by it and don’t know how to resolve it. They are also quite self-absorbed and they can get stuck in their own emotions, so during a conflict they will be too focused on their own experience of the situation, and they will struggle to have empathy or the ability to really be there for us, so they push us away. Because they don’t have the maturity to be able to calmly resolve a difficult situation, they resort to unhealthy behaviours like punishment, manipulation and control to get their way or deal with it, even if it costs them the relationship. But because they often feel hurt easily, they are oblivious to other people’s pain or how their actions could hurt others. This means they don’t really see the damage they do to us or the pain they cause when they give us the silent treatment. Emotionally immature people struggle to express their feelings in a healthy way or look inwards which means they blame their negative feelings on others instead of taking responsibility for their actions or how they feel.
Why It’s The Worst Thing A Parent Can Do To Their Child
When you really think about it, our parent is withdrawing themselves away from us, effectively taking our parent away and leaving us without a parent. This leaves us feeling abandoned, unloved and isolated.
This is very painful and it causes us to conclude that: if my parent can turn their back on me and walk away from our relationship so easily, then I must be worthless.
Children and adult children that have experienced the silent treatment from their parent will often be desperate for love, affection, attention and validation and they will search for it from others, often leading to dangerous situations and other toxic relationships.
We will go into friendships and romantic relationships assuming that we will be rejected and abandoned at some point. This causes anxiety and it can cause us to modify our behaviour and not truly be ourselves for fear of being rejected if they don’t like the real us.
It will leave us feeling tremendously frustrated because when they shut down and refuse to discuss issues that are important to us, it leaves no opportunity to resolve the conflict which would lead to restoring the relationship and making the pain stop.
Silent Treatment As A Form Of Emotional Abuse
You might think the silent treatment is just something your parent does. Perhaps you are used to it and you may even expect it from time to time so you try not to let it bother you anymore. But you might be surprised to know that it’s actually a form of emotional abuse.
When a parent does this for any length of time, they are withdrawing themselves and the relationship from us, purposely causing us to feel abandoned, rejected, powerless, unwanted, and frustrated, which brings with it a sense of feeling unloved and unlovable.
We will have an understanding that it is very easy for our parent to abandon us, to walk away from us and the relationship so easily. Knowing that our parent cares so little and that when it comes to our relationship, they can take it or leave it, causes us to feel completely worthless. This has a devastating impact on our self-esteem and self-worth.
This will naturally make us feel desperate to restore the relationship and we can end up begging them to talk to us and even apologizing when we haven’t done anything wrong. This puts them in control and the relationship will never be equal because we know that at any moment, they can easily withdraw from the relationship again. This means we have to modify our behaviour to make sure we never upset them again, and we can’t be congruent or our true selves around them. The parent is using manipulative behaviour to control their child and the child can’t be themselves and they live in fear, which is very emotionally abusive.
How Silent Treatment Is Different To Taking A Break Or Cooling Off
It is normal in relationships to take time to cool off or take a break and gather your thoughts after an argument. When we take time to calm down, we will typically tell the other person that’s what we are doing and make sure they know we are coming back soon to resolve things.
Silent treatment is different for a few reasons. The toxic parent doesn’t tell you that’s what they are doing, they just disappear. They are choosing not to communicate with you entirely, which means they have no intention of cooling off for a short period of time and continue talking later and resolving the issue.
This is about punishment and control. Giving you a clear message to behave the way they want or lose them.
How To Deal With It
You will probably be tempted to say or do anything to get the silent treatment to end and restore the relationship. Remember that silent treatment is emotional abuse and a manipulation tactic to get you to change, and prevent you from growing and setting healthy boundaries. Do not allow yourself to be manipulated and abused.
Don’t beg them to speak to you or promise to change. That’s what they want and they will know their manipulation works and they will keep doing it.
Ask yourself if you really want to be in a relationship with someone that refuses to discuss issues or resolve conflict, or try to help you feel better.
Try to understand that your parent has not developed the ability to express a healthy level of empathy.
Accept that your parent can’t give you what you need. It’s still possible to have a relationship with a toxic parent, just don’t expect too much from them.
Set healthy boundaries with them, which might mean distancing yourself and spending less time with them.
Keep the relationship at a casual level. This can be hard to accept but understand that toxic parents can’t give us what we need because they don’t have it to give. You may feel you need to grieve the relationship, and that’s ok.
Enjoy the silence! See it as a break from their drama and demanding ways.
Know that you are worthy of a healthy relationship with someone who can communicate in a mature, emotionally healthy manner.
There are lots of resources online to help you identify and overcome and deal with a relationship with a toxic parent, and there are lots of therapists, like myself, that can help.
I know from personal experience how difficult and painful the silent treatment from a parent is. It’s taken me a long time to learn that I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, and I hope you know it too.