‘Silence can be as vindictive as speech’ – Anon.
My mother was the master, or, in her case, the mistress, of this technique. She would retreat into menacing and ominous non-communication so that a black atmosphere, a harbinger of doom, permeated the house, evoking feelings of intense anxiety and fear – even terror.
I remember that she even utterly ignored me on my 13th birthday ( I don’t actually recall why – presumably, I had infringed one of her mysterious, unfathomable and esoteric rules). I remember leaving for school and thinking that birthdays were over-rated anyway, thus cementing and hardening further the cynical outlook on life I hard long since adopted, even at this tender age.
I don’t like birthdays to this day. However, I must confess that it also has something to do with getting older. As one of Anthony Powell’s characters (I forget which) put it : ‘Getting older is like being increasingly penalized for a crime one hasn’t committed.’
Parents who give their children the ‘silent treatment’ intend, unambiguously, to punish them. By not communicating verbally, they tacitly and powerfully convey their disapproval and anger. The child is made to feel unworthy and like a pariah, not fit to associate with ‘decent’ people. Furthermore, the parent is in the position to continue to make the child feel like this indefinitely, which gives him/her (i.e. the parent) a feeling of power and control.
Indeed, the strategy derives from the parent’s desire for such power.
The child may be forced to undergo this humiliating treatment for hours, or, at the worst end of the spectrum, even for days or months.
If the child tries to ‘redeem’ him/herself in the parent’s eyes, this can further the parent’s sense of power and control – it gives the parent the choice of extending the punishment, thus thwarting the child’s desires, or, ‘magnanimously’, granting ‘mercy’.
If the child, due to the emotional distress s/he is caused, becomes angry, the parent may derive satisfaction from the fact – in the mind of the parent, the child has proved s/he deserves punishment due to this ‘further bad behaviour’ (i.e. the, in reality, completely understandable sense of anger and injustice the child feels in response to the parent’s rejection of him/her. In relation to this, click here to read my article entitled ‘HOW THE CHILD’S VIEW OF HIS OWN ‘BADNESS’ IS PERPETUATED).
The parent, on the other hand, may view him/herself, sanctimoniously and hypocritically, as the ‘decent and reasonable’ one, having been ‘big enough’ not to resort to anger him/herself, unlike his/her ‘wayward’ offspring.
Thus, the parent’s high-handed attitude can further anger the child, further ‘vindicating’ the parent (from the parent’s own warped and self-serving perspective).
This is what makes the ‘silent treatment’ so insidious, and, indeed, invidious. At its worst it can lead to the development of a vicious circle with terrible consequences.
In such a situation, family therapy may well spare family members from much unnecessary suffering.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).