Silent-treatment survival guide

What to do when you try to talk to your child and there's no reply at all

The other day, I wouldn’t let my three-year-old son have a second cookie — and braced myself for the fallout. But, instead of the angry protest I expected, I got silence. Sudden, unnerving, you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silence — over which, I realized, I’d happily take a tantrum at top volume any day.

Kids can shut down and stop talking at any age, whether for an hour, a day or more, says Kimberly Eckert, a Calgary-based psychologist. “I see it with my own daughter, who’s six,” she says. If you’re stymied by the silent treatment, here’s why it happens, and how you can reopen the lines of communication.

Why kids clam up When kids suddenly fall silent, it’s usually for one of two reasons, says Eckert: “Often it’s ‘I’m mad at you and I’m just not going to talk to you’ or ‘I’m embarrassed by how I acted and I don’t know how to fix it.’” Either way, kids don’t know what to do with these emotions. “Parents can misread the silent treatment as their child being difficult or not being sorry,” says Eckert.
Breaking the silence When you’re on the receiving end of the silent treatment, the first step is to support your child. For toddlers and preschoolers, Eckert recommends naming their feelings for them: “I see you’re angry because I said you can’t have another cookie.” Then offer choices: “You can give me a hug so we both feel better or you can play with your Lego and talk to me when you’re ready.”

Kids this age really respond to the idea that you’re there to help them and that there’s a way out, says Eckert. Same goes for school-aged children. Older kids may know what they’re feeling, but not how to work through it. Eckert recommends offering them a “calm out” until they’re ready to communicate, by saying something like “I know you’re sorry you hit your brother and I’m here to help when you feel like talking.” The key is to give them an open invitation to come back and connect with you.

When teens stop talking Ever try saying no to a teen? It’s the most common reason for the silent treatment, says Eckert, but it’s important to see things from their perspective because it is a bummer for them to hear that word. So instead of telling them “It’s about time you came out of your room,” try “I know you’re disappointed you can’t go to the party, but thank you for respecting my decision.” It’s hard to stay mad at a parent who understands why you’re upset, she says.

Express yourself Your own behaviour can make a big difference in preventing the silent treatment from seeping into your home in the first place. “It’s important to show kids that angry or remorseful feelings are normal and that the way to deal with them is to talk about them,” says Eckert. The bottom line? If you want your kids to talk, you need to as well. “Communication with our kids is critical to a healthy relationship,” she says. “And they need to know it’s safe and normal to express emotion.”