The silent treatment vs planned ignoring - why you should ignore the behaviour, not the child

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"Silent treatment can cause the person on the receiving end of it to walk on eggshells, trying desperately not to trigger the person giving the silent treatment." Photo: Getty Images
"Silent treatment can cause the person on the receiving end of it to walk on eggshells, trying desperately not to trigger the person giving the silent treatment." Photo: Getty Images

Are you the kind of parent who goes silent when your children get into mischief or display unwanted behaviour?

Sometimes we don't know how to react, or we freeze up, or we think that staying quiet is the same as staying calm, but this isn't actually a healthy way to manage child discipline. 

Karen Quail – a local mom, ex-school counsellor and teacher who works independently and coaches and consults on non-violent discipline (Peace Discipline) – says it is not okay to use silent treatment as a form of discipline. 

What is silent treatment?

"Silent treatment is when you are cross with someone, so you go quiet – not peaceful quiet but angry quiet," says Quail.

Whether you are doing this to your partner or your child, Quail says silent treatment is mean, and it is horrible to be on the receiving end of it. 

"Once, a teenager told me that she hadn't eaten for two days. When I asked her why she hadn't eaten, she told me that her mother was angry and had gone quiet," Quail says.

"I still didn't understand the connection between this and not eating, and so she explained that although there was food in the house, she was too scared when she needed food from the pot because she thought that might be the trigger for her mother to say, 'Yeah, you want to eat my food, but you did x and y'. The child knew that shouting and possibly a beating would follow," she adds.

Quail says silent treatment can cause the person on the receiving end to walk on eggshells by trying desperately not to trigger the person giving the silent treatment. In this case, the mother.

Read: 'It is discipline, not punishment': A mother's tips on how to avoid a bedtime blow-up

Children want connection

According to Quail, the silent treatment is a clear sign of danger to a child. Children immediately lose connection when this happens because giving the silent treatment means you won't let them correct their wrongdoing.

Quail says this is cruel because children feel safe through connection. So, freezing them out like this is emotional abuse. It's punitive and mean and can be scary to them.

Here is what to do instead

Next time...

Quail says the first thing to do is to tell the child what they've done wrong and what they should do in the future.

For example: "Next time, put your school uniform in the laundry bag. Put your shoes on the shoe rack."

Guide them to make amends

The next thing is to guide the child to make amends for what they have done, instead of punishing them for what they've done wrong. She says the parent should show them how to put it right.

"There's such a difference with the silent treatment. The child feels like you'll never let them fix it when you use it. When you are making amends, the child can see what they've done wrong and how it's affected you, but they're able to put it right, and that feels much better for everyone," explains Quail.

Must read: 5 things every guilty parent needs to know

Let them know what upset you

Quail says when the child has done something wrong, and you are upset and need some time to cool down, don't use this as an excuse to give the silent treatment.

Instead, tell the child that you're upset and need time to cool off, and go and take some time out. Tell them when you'll be back.

"Don't just turn to stone. You might say something like, 'I'm really upset and need some time to cool down. I'll be back in 10 minutes. Only then we can talk about it'," says Quail.

She says doing this will model a skill that children can use in future when they're very upset. This is a helpful skill in life, and the parent is teaching this by modelling it.

Silent treatment and planned ignoring

Quail says that silent treatment is different from planned ignoring. "The silent treatment is a punishment, and it's manipulative and cruel, while planned ignoring is a recognised behavioural skill," she clarifies.

"The big difference is that you are ignoring a certain behaviour, rather than ignoring the child, and ignoring the behaviour not to punish the child but to avoid rewarding that behaviour by giving it attention," she adds.

Use it with care

Quail says that planned ignoring should be used with care.

"For example, a teacher might tell children in the class that they're not going to respond to answers shouted out by learners who haven't even raised their hand. They will only respond and call on children who raise their hands and sit quietly, waiting for their turn."

Alternatively, a father might tell a young child that he's not going to respond to being kicked in the back through the car seat, but he will not say anything until the child speaks to him nicely without kicking.

Must see: 'It's important that they feel secure and safe': Understanding your Cancer child

Ignore the behaviour, not the child

Quail says that the behaviour is being ignored in both these scenarios, not the child. The child knows which behaviour will be ignored, and very importantly, they also know which behaviour will not be overlooked.

In the first example, the pupils in the class know they need to raise their hands and sit quietly for the teacher to respond to them.

In the second example, the child in the car knows he must stop kicking and must speak respectfully for his dad to give him the attention or answers he requires.

Quail says children need to feel emotionally and physically safe with us, and they feel safe through connection and our attunement to them. Attunement is when your responses fit with the child's signals.

She says trying to make things right by freezing your child out is not being attuned, and they will not feel safe with you.

For more information and examples of this conversation, watch the video below.


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