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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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