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Childhood Trauma : The ‘Silent Treatment’.

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734-word article

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.

Silence can be as vindictive as speech. Anon

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 had long since adopted, even at this tender age. 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 may use the ‘silent treatment’ in a way that isn’t malicious and is intended to be a helpful and temporary measure to stop an argument/conflict from escalating further, explaining to the child that it is better to talk more calmly later on rather than whilst angry when things may be said which are later regretted.

However, sadly, some emotionally abusive parents (or, at best, emotionally immature parents) may use ‘silent treatment’ with the unambiguous intention of punishing and controlling the child, By not communicating verbally, they tacitly and powerfully convey their disapproval and anger. The child is made to feel devalued, anxious, distressed. unworthy and like a pariah, unfit 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 by sadistic narcissistic parents  (see the short section on narcissistic parents below).

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 behavior’ (i.e. the completely understandable sense of anger and injustice the child feels in response to the parent’s rejection of him/her). My own mother would taunt me to the point I would break down in floods of tears, sometimes screaming and shouting, which, in retrospect, I can see was my mother’s intention as it provided her with evidence of my ‘badness’. She would mock my tears with phrases such as ‘here come the waterworks’ or ‘stop that babyish blubbing’

In this way, she was not satisfied until she had driven me into a state of hysteria and, finally, complete, emotionally exhausted, brokenness. I can also see now, of course, that such behavior reflected her own sense of profound inadequacy. 

Alternatively, some children may desperately try to placate the parent who is ignoring them and be prepared to apologize for things they haven’t done in an attempt to get back in the parent’s ‘good book.’

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.