So, your once chatty teen has suddenly clammed up. No parents enjoy getting the silent treatment from their kid, especially when you feel like you’ve enjoyed a close relationship and nothing has changed on your end. The first thing to do is to take a breath and understand that pulling away from parents is not only normal but also a necessary developmental stage of adolescence. Navigating this transition toward independence is difficult and as much as kids hate to admit it (and probably won’t), children still need parents to stay connected and involved in their lives.
Teens need their own space but they also need their parents. In fact, most teens say they want to be closer to their parents but don’t know how to do that. So while your kid is doing the work of separating, you need to do the work of carefully bridging the gap. Start by meeting her where she is:
How silent is the silent treatment?
Whether or not you have cause for concern really depends on the extent to which your kid has stopped talking. Let’s look at 3 possible scenarios:
#1 You and your daughter used to be “besties.” She told you everything and now, suddenly, she’s shut you out and only shares her private thoughts with friends.
In this case, you have very little to worry about. And painful as it may be, you have to try not to take her choice personally. She’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing.
What to do:
- Don’t lecture her or tell her how hurt you feel.
- Try to have positive interactions with her.
- Engage her in activities you’ve enjoyed doing together.
- Sit down to meals with her.
- Don’t pump her for information. Instead, open up and share something funny or interesting about your own life. If you open up, she’s more likely to do the same.
- Talk to her like an adult with respect and make it clear that you value her opinions and expect respect in return.
#2 Your once lovely and affectionate child now responds to you with one-word answers and annoyed eye rolling. He spends as little time with you as possible and seems to reserve all his enthusiasm for his friends.
Though it may be maddening and you might be tempted to punish this kind of behavior, know that it still falls well within the range of normal teenage development. Focusing on peer relationships helps kids learn to be less dependent on parents—a necessary step to becoming happy, independent adults. That said, it’s still your job to insist on respect and to keep your child safe.
What to do:
- Set appropriate limits, but focus on strengthening your relationship, too. You’ll get no respect if he doesn’t feel connected to you.
- Resist the urge to lecture. If you can do that, he won’t need to push you away in order to become himself.
- Remember that teenagers can be emotional. Look for the distress under the disrespect, and remind them of who they really are. By saying something like, “I know you’re upset but aren’t normally unkind,” you can create the beginning of a conversation.
#3 Your child speaks to no one and spends all her time in her room with the door closed. She has withdrawn from friends, lost interest in activities that once gave her pleasure, and has grown increasingly isolated.
This kind of behavior is cause for serious concern and falls outside the realm of the normal teenage development. You need to find out whether your child has undergone some kind of trauma (bullying, rape) or is abusing drugs or alcohol. This behavior could also indicate the beginning of a serious mental health issue such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, all which become more common in the late teens and early 20s.
It’s dangerous if she’s pulling away from everyone she knows. Retreating into an online world, for instance, isn’t an acceptable substitute for talking to people in real life. Internet relationships can become very intense very fast, and it’s hard to know if the people your daughter is friends with online are a good influence, or even who they say they are.
What to do
- If your child seems hostile and angry, give her the chance to explain if you’ve done something wrong.
- Privacy only goes so far. No teenager’s room should be off-limits to a parent. You have the right to know what your child is doing in her room, especially if she is spending hours at a time alone there.
- Insist on more information. It’s not at all uncommon for teens to answer questions like “Where are you going?” by saying simply, “Out.” And “When will you be back?” with “Later.” Stand firm and tell her you need specifics.
- In cases where your kid refuses to communicate, it may be advisable to monitor her social media.
- Seek professional help from a qualified clinician. Begin by calling your child’s pediatrician and describing her behavior in detail.
If you suspect your teen might be feeling suicidal
If you even suspect this might be the case, you need to address the issue immediately. But calmly. “It’s important that you talk about your concerns in a calm, non-accusatory manner,” says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist and expert on suicide in young people. “Sometimes when parents are very worried, they end up saying, ‘Don’t think this way,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ and they come across not as loving and caring, as intended, but as critical. Children respond negatively to that.”
Kaslow also recommends:
- Let your child know you love him over and over again when he’s having a hard time.
- Validate his feelings by saying things that show empathy such as: “It sounds like that was really difficult.” “I know how painful that can be.”
- Work with your child to get professional help and explain that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness.
When it comes to the silent treatment, remember, it’s not about you. You have to pick your battles and give your kid room to grow. But you also have to put your child’s health and well being above all else, and that means staying connected even when she doesn’t make it easy…or fun.