It is disorienting, as a parent, going from your chatty child who tells you about every minute detail of their life, to a distant teenager who doesn’t want anything to do with you. Sometimes, teens can take this to the extreme and give you the silent treatment.
Teens give their parents the silent treatment for a few reasons
- They may assume we can’t handle what they are going to say. (Often they are right about this. If your teen frequently gives you the silent treatment, check out these communication tips).
- They may not have the words to say how they feel. (This is developmentally appropriate)
- They are seeking independence. “If I share everything with my parents, that means I’m not independent.”
It is normal for teens to think that they’re the only ones who have ever had the unique thoughts that they are having. Usually, because of this, they feel strange, confused, and like something is wrong with them. Teens can torture themselves ongoingly with thoughts like “What would a normal 15-year-old do in this situation?” or “What should someone who looks like me be thinking right now?”
What you can do if your teen is giving you the silent treatment
- Make it safe for them to talk (no threats, lectures, or telling them they are wrong or bad).
- Do not try and force them to talk. This often pushes them further away.
- You can ask, “Did I hurt your feelings?” or “Are you mad at me right now?”
- Trust that they will tell you when they’re ready.
Sometimes teens go quiet if they have lied or have done something they know they shouldn’t have. Your teen may be ashamed and not want to admit it. If they do come clean, instead of berating them, stay calm. Say something like “That is sad. I’m glad you shared it with me. How can I help you?” This kind of response keeps communication lines open. This is so important – you want your teen to be able to talk to you about challenging, scary and painful experiences.
Remember, you are also able to share your limits with your teen around their behavior. If your teen asks you for something after having given you the silent treatment for days, feel free to respond with something like… “We haven’t spoken in days and I am worried about you. I would be happy to give you the car if we can touch base about how you are doing first. Take your time, I’ll be available when you’re ready.”
Routine alone time
We recommend that parents have routine alone time with their teens each week. This time can look like joining a parent-teen sport, going on a walk, grabbing a tea together, going to the gym, volunteering, gardening, or playing a game. Whether it’s during the activity or on the drive home, this routine time is a good place to check in if you are worried. It can also reassure your teen that if they ever don’t know how to tell you something, they will have an opportunity to talk to you in a safe, and private place if they need to.