The Silent Treatment [Types of Emotional Child Abuse Series, Part 1]

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When you look up the definition of emotional child abuse, several examples are listed: giving the silent treatment, ranking children unnecessarily, being condescending, bunny boiling, gaslighting children, scapegoating, sabotaging, favoritism, triangulation, pathological (or compulsive) lying, smearing, corrupting, ignoring, corrupting, terrorizing, isolation, and inappropriate control. 

To better understand the different facets of emotional child abuse, we’ll be exploring one trait per post.

In this post, we’ll look more closely at the emotionally abusive form of child abuse called “the silent treatment” (also “withholding”). It is also used in adult relationships, but for the purpose and focus of The Invisible Scar, we’ll study the silent treatment as it relates to children.

No discussion of emotional abuse through words would be complete without including the absence of words as a form of abuse. This is commonly known as the ‘silent treatment.’ Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger, frustration, or disappointment.” (Dr. Gregory Jantz, “Portrait of an Emotional Abuser: The Silent Treatment Abuser article)

Examples of the Silent Treatment (or Withholding)

  • A parent stops talking to a child because the child did not anticipate the parent’s needs. Perhaps the parent expected the child to do a chore or a task without being told to do so and, when the child fails to meet that expectation, the parent will not talk to the child for a long time.
  • A parent who did not like what a child said will withhold as punishment. For example, a child may have not liked dinner and called it “gross” or “disgusting.” The parent will then no longer talk to the child for a long time.
  • A parent will ignore a child who did not show the proper amount of support, attention, or enthusiasm for what the parent deemed importance. For example, the parent may have mentioned something that happened at work, and the child did not react with the attention or enthusiasm that the parent demand. The child will then be ignored.

Note that all the above examples cite regular behaviors in the children…. A child does forget to do chores, a child will call something gross and refuse meals at times, a child will not care very much about what happens in the workday of the parent. The child is behaving very much like a child; unfortunately, the parent is not behaving to his/her appropriate maturity level.

The parent, in all those examples, is demanding for the child to meet the emotional needs of the parent. However, a good parent offers unconditional love and support; an emotionally abusive parent demands unconditional love and support from his/her child.

The silent treatment then is the parent’s punishment of the child for not giving that unconditional support and love.

How the Silent Treatment Hurts Children

The result is intense pain for the child.

In their minds, you have disappeared and all attempts to get you to reappear are not working.  They have no idea why this has happened.  It is terrifying because a child cannot survive without a parent or caregiver.  The silent treatment sends a message to your child that they are not safe in the world, that their provider may or may not be available to them at any given time, for no apparent reason. (Is It OK for Parents to Give Children the Silent Treatment? by Elyn Tromey, Boulder Counseling)

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Is There a Difference Between a Time-Out and the Silent Treatment?

Sometimes, children are sent to their rooms (in a “time-out”) to think about what has happened (if the child behaved in a way that hurts, either emotionally or physically, another member of the family). That is not a form of child abuse if it’s a cooling-off phase.

“Do not confuse the silent treatment with something known as the ‘cooling off period.’ The cooling off period is where one person is so angry or disgusted by the other person that they just cannot deal with the situation in that state, and need time to calm down before they begin speaking to this person. That’s normal and should be allowed in a relationship. But purposely ignoring and refusing to hear or talk to a person is wrong, intentional, manipulative, and demonstrates extreme calculation and cruelty on how to hurt another person or even drive them crazy.” (Dove Christian Counseling website)

The difference between a time-out and a silent treatment is explained well on a chart on this Out of the Fog page.

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39 thoughts on “The Silent Treatment [Types of Emotional Child Abuse Series, Part 1]

  1. My mother used the silent treatment on my sister and me our entire lives. Even going as far as to punish ME by withholding and silence when my college aged sister disobeyed her. Mom passed away 3 years ago. And even at the age of 42 I still have the nagging thought that mom is being “silent” because I am not worthy of her time and attention 😦

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  2. My N mom would get upset at me for ‘transgressions’ and give me the silent treatment.
    But I am now realizing an even bigger part was my enabling father.
    I could trigger a narcissistic rage from something as irrational as sending a card that was too light by weight (not heavy enough card stock) or not having a proper closing on an email to mother.
    This would lead to several days of silent treatment from N-mom, but if I protested, father would convince me I was wrong for doing whatever I did to upset mom and should have known better and that I was rationalizing.

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    1. My mother’s mother was bi-polar and suffered half-a-dozen nervous breakdowns during my childhood. My enabling father would eventually check on my mother after she’d given me the silent treatment by sulking for a few hours in her bathroom. Then he’d announce to me that he was “afraid your mother’s having a nervous breakdown, and will have to be institutionalized just like your grandmother”. Talk about a guilt trip!

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  3. I’m not sure if what my Mum does counts as emotional abuse when she gives me the silent treatment, so I was wondering if someone could help me? When I was a kid I once lost little bits from a toy set I got for my birthday and I remember my Mum refusing to really speak to me for a week or two. I distinctly remember one morning being desperate for her to speak to me again so I was a little ass kissy, she said in a nasty tone that I ‘was still in the dog house’ so she didn’t really speak much still. I’m now 21, it has happened a few times during my teens but tonight it has really gotten to me. I have a bad relationship with my brother and she has basically guilt tripped me into talking to him again on Christmas Day (today) even though I feel extemely uncomfortable and hurt by his selfish actions. I tried to be mature and explain to her why I didn’t want to continue any sort of relationship with him, why I don’t want to pretend and give him the wrong idea that I’m always going to accept the nasty things he has done to me and my family. She shut down on me, made me feel bad about my feelings towards him and stopped talking. She actually got up and left the room and only spoke when she had to in a montone voice. I tried to apologize for upsetting her and causing issues and asked her what she wanted me to do because I don’t want to be the one blamed with any bad atmosphere on Christmas Day. She told me to do what I want but she and I both know she didn’t mean it. She went back to silence again, barely acknowledging me even though I said I would sit with him and act like we’re happy families. I feel awful, like I’m being mean and dramatic for not wanting to continue what I deem a toxic relation with my brother. Considering she no longer speaks to her sisters or mother, and rightfully so with the horrible things they did, I thought she would understand and not do this. Is this just me being silly and unfair, or is this kind of behaviour from her emotionally abusive? Thank you, sorry for rambling.

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    1. Hi,my name is mandy im 20 and i come from a similar situation with my mother, and the classic ‘silent treatment’ is a emotionally manipulative tactic, that makes you feel regected, and in regret that what you said has made her do that. Its used to make you feel guilty, and when she has your guilt, she feel like she is rightfully teaching you a lesson. Whether this is the action of an emotional abuser i cannot answer for you, i do though definitely recommend googling ‘signs of an emotional abuser’ i hope i could help in some way

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    2. Definitely emotionally abusive. What you are subjected to is tailor-made to deliberately make you feel bad. It is generally hard to see if you are the child at the receiving end, since that’s the only mother you’ve ever had and you don’t have a “healthy mother” to compare the unhealthy behaviour to. But you *feel* it, before you can intellectually see it – and with enough reading about emotional abuse and good therapy it will become so clear you’ll wonder how it was ever not blindingly obvious. But it’s not at first to the abused child because they grew up literally brainwashed. Lots of people don’t “wake up” until their mid-life or later. When I was 16 I first left home because of it, but in my 20s kept running back to try to improve my relationship with my family, as if somehow it was my fault and my responsibility… it didn’t change, I just got hurt over and over until I decided to stop… and until I decided that my feelings actually mattered… that it wasn’t my feelings that were the problem, that it actually was their behaviour, and that feelings like sadness and frustration and loneliness were a natural response / alarm bell / feedback system to let me know it wasn’t a healthy environment.

      If I could advise my younger self, I would say, trust your true feelings and instincts – but ignore the guilt and shame and self-doubt responses that abused people have been taught by their abusers. Go where you are valued and appreciated and encouraged. It can take time to find places and people like this, especially since we’ve been taught we don’t deserve it and tend to be uncomfortable with healthy encouraging loving people’s attention at first (feels unfamiliar, don’t know how to respond, surely they don’t mean me, if they really knew me etc… *no* – that’s just brainwash – relax, you do deserve good things and to be appreciated and encouraged).

      For me personally, I thought correctly about my abusive family of origin long before I stopped feeling the guilt and shame and self-doubt that I had been conditioned to feel whenever I didn’t do what they wanted. That, I didn’t lose till my early 40s after being diagnosed with complex PTSD (due to physical and emotional abuse and neglect in my childhood – there were horrifying memories and feelings I had mostly suppressed just to survive as a child – it had become a sort of silent movie that seemed to be about someone else). Uncovering these lost feelings and actually feeling healthy anger about what that little girl I once was went through – just like you’d feel for any other child – collapsed the guilt and shame and self-doubt.

      You’re already aware that something is really wrong, and it’s not you, dear Melanie. It’s totally reasonable to distance yourself from toxic people, go no contact if you choose – you know what’s best for your own peace of mind. You have a right to thrive and how can you do that in a metaphorical rubbish dump? One thing though, you won’t convince a dysfunctional family of that, so don’t get drawn into debates about it by them, it won’t help. You don’t owe them explanations. Just stick with what is best for you, and know that healthy self-care is not the same as selfishness.

      There are people in this world who will love you for who you are, who will really see you when they look at you. In the books about emotional abuse they are referred to as “safe” people – it is so helpful to learn to find safe people, and to be a safe person for others, when negotiating the often repeated dysfunction in society. My very very best wishes for your journey. ❤

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  4. I always knew deep down that something was very wrong with my mom but I was convinced by her that I was the reason. My behavior, my failures, my poor choices, embarrassing her with my behavior that in reality was not even close to bad but in her eyes was disrespectful. My mom let me know I had done something wrong by refusing to engage in conversations with me. She would glare at me and when I asked her what was wrong (and she would make me ask over and over with no response). When she decided to tell me the infraction it was when she wanted. She could make me wait for days in agony before she would even tell me what I did that was horrible or upsetting. I remember at a young age writing little notes of I’m sorry to her and slipping them under her door in the hopes that she would stop… I am just now at almost 50 years old beginning the journey of healing from all the scars. The worst part is that when I talk to my mom now about these things that hurt so much she always manages to get so sad and self deprecating but not out of regret or feeling bad about the actions but so I would feel guilty about accusing her the perfect mother of hurting me. Her response is usually oh dear I am so sorry I have been such a terrible mother “guilt guilt guilt” never I am sorry you were hurt. She always adds I did the best I could with you because you were difficult to handle and your father was never around. I didn’t mean to cause you any harm…. but she never actually acknowledges that she was wrong it is always ultimately my behavior CAUSED her to act the way she did. It is so frustrating to know that everything that I have suffered emotionally was not really my fault and all these years of feeling like a complete failure and a horrible child. Poor mom she adopted the difficult child that she didn’t know how to handle. So she just shut me out. If I didn’t agree with her or didn’t do exactly what she suggested then I was a bad disrespectful child that did not appreciate all she does for me.

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  5. Hi…know what all r feeling…my mom didn’t speak to me as a child….she would often target my father, myself and older sister..her third daughter was the golden child…the” could do nothing wrong” daughter. I remember , as a 10, 11,12 yr old, going to breakfast with my dad’s brother and his son who was a high functioning autistic kid. We would often go to Sunday church, to breakfast and then bowling. I would come home to find her sitting on the couch with that leg crossed and shaking up/down. I would ask her “what’s wrong?” As I walked in the door. There it started, I would not be spoken to for hours, days, sometimes longer. As a kid I never thought much of it. It was “normal”? Today as a 54 yr old woman, I have never had more problems with it. My mom is 88 yrs. I must now contend with the fact that I will never have any answers as to “why” this happened. I would just love to hear her explain this!!!

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  6. All these stories are so tragic. I’ve also begun to learn about “emotional abuse.” About 5 months ago I ended contact with my family, and so much is becoming clear to me now. How my mother has manipulated me all her life with her moods, her witholding, and cold silent treatment. It seemed more painful all throughout my adult life. If we ever had an argument,, or even the slightest disagreement, she wouldn’t talk to me, or call me at all. If I ever wanted contact with her again, it was me who had to reach out, even if she hung up on me, was rude, or even swore at me. She never apologized for anything. Everything was my fault. She blamed me for everything. Even the abuse from my father, though she mostly denied it. Any kind of pain, or trouble, or difficult situation I had, she would find a way to blame me for it. She belittled me, and treated me like an idiot. I’m so glad she is out of my life. Now, I can finally heal. I owe her nothing. I am free.

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  7. The silent treatment for me while being social and inclusive of everyone else stlll kills me! I feel like screaming that I AM HERE. I have spent my whole life being invisible to my mother and sisters. They dont know me and dont care. I dont get invited to most events but sometimes its accidental (invited by mutual friend, funeral etc) and it still happens. Sometimes I force the issue and continually try to start conversation but only get monosylablic answers, no eye contact and they move away from me. Seriously I am NOT a bad person. Everywhere else I have no problem. For years I thought it was my fault but now I know its theirs! But how do you live with this! Its just so unfair, there is no understanding and I have spent most of my life trying to be noticed by my family. They are so supportive of each other which makes it worse. I have lived my life trying to impress them, I havent been an embarrassment but nothing is noticed. It seriously is like I am invisible!

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