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My teenager is giving me the silent treatment

 

It’s frustrating, even infuriating, when your teen refuses to talk to you. Whether it’s a temporary power move or your teen choosing to go no-contact, disconnection from your child can feel like cutting your heart out and putting it through a blender.

Your feelings are real and valid. You’re allowed to feel the sadness, the despair, the rage…all of it.

Here’s a few strategies to navigate this situation in a way that strengthens your relationship at the same time.

Why do teenagers use the silent treatment?

It’s a coping mechanism. They’re experiencing far more complex emotions than when they were as a child (going from about 16 to 88!), and they’re not yet equipped to process, express, or articulate these feelings.

This means they often lash out or go silent when they can’t say what they mean or ask for what they need. It’s just like when they were a toddler and they’d throw a tantrum. Taking this personally puts the focus on you rather than discovering what’s behind your teen’s actions.

Teenagers who use the silent treatment are often deemed oversensitive, overdramatic, or attention seeking. I want to caution you on using these labels, whether you verbalize them or not. If your teen is choosing not to speak to you, they’re setting a rudimentary boundary to feel safe and respected, even if you don’t like it.

Stonewalling is toxic

The silent treatment, known as stonewalling, is a way to regain a sense of power in a relationship where they feel consistently unheard or powerless. Many people resort to stonewalling when they feel unskilled or unwilling to engage in a particular topic or relationship. Communication is the oxygen in a relationship so removing it is like slowly suffocating.

All behaviour is communication

When your teenager isn’t speaking with you, when they’re slamming doors or huffing around, they’re trying to tell you something. This doesn’t make it healthy behaviour—it’s simply a display of how hurt or angry they are, and it may be a cry for help i.e., ‘I have something difficult to say and I don’t know how to start the conversation, so I need you to ask me if I want to share’.

Their brain now has the capacity to communicate in a healthier way, yet it doesn’t have the skill in doing it. It starts with you mentoring them and helping them develop the confidence and words.

Judging your teen for their messy emotions may in fact be the exact thing standing in the way of you reconnecting with them. If you’re focused on punishing them for “acting out,” you’ll miss the giant flag saying, “I’m drowning over here! I’m feeling scared and abandoned, and I need you to notice.”

Listen, validate, repeat

The next time your teen is breaking out the eye rolls and the door slams, don’t brush it off—validate it! Tell them it’s okay to be angry or upset. Say things like, “It must be hard feeling so upset.” You don’t have to agree, they just need to feel heard.

Of course, boundaries to support everyone in feeling respected are healthy. However, be aware of the imbalance of you feeling disrespected when your teen sets a hard boundary, and now you want them to give that up because it’s crossing one of yours. This isn’t about playing the power card or being right. It’s about finding your way through a tough situation.

This is when true behaviour change takes place: through connection.

If you try to communicate and they give you the silent treatment, you can say, “I respect you don’t want to engage with me right now, and I want you to know whatever you’re feeling is okay. I love you.”

If the silent treatment is lasting for a longer period of time, consider sending your teen love notes (not too frequently). These can be simple, short texts letting them know you’re thinking about them WITHOUT expectation of return (because then it’s about you).

When they’re ready to talk, don’t jump straight to a lecture or a million questions. Listen first, then get curious, asking questions to better understand their thinking without accusing them of anything.

Taking care of yourself is a priority

Feeling shut out by your teen can feel incredibly painful, so I highly encourage you to process your emotions away from your teen with a therapist, counsellor, good friend, or even writing in your journal. Adding your emotional pain to the relationship when you’re already on shaking ground will only escalate conflict and drive disconnection.

The best thing you can do for your teen is to model healthy emotional expression. Expand your emotional vocabulary and start talking about your own feelings, the pleasurable and challenging ones, using ‘I’ language (because no one MAKES you feel anything).

Most of all, remember your teen’s behaviour does not define your value as a human being.

Nor does your teen’s choices like lying or stealing. Join me and my esteemed colleague, Dr. Cam, Adolescent Psychologist, on October 5th in my private parenting community for a conversation about impulse control, executive function and what you can do to avoid lying and stealing. Membership is free for the first 14 days and you can cancel at any time. Jump in now and I’ll see you Wednesday for our LIVE in the Empowered Parent Community!

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