The silent treatment can be a viable form of discipline if it’s done with intention in the service of behavior modification and self-preservation. And, yes, that assertion can feel at odds with parenting styles that place an emphasis on hovering or yelling to keep kids in line. But that’s kind of the point. When a parent launches into a disciplinary silent treatment, kids have a tendency to start listening.
“Sometimes purposefully ignoring a child is a great intervention,” explains positive psychologist Dr. Robert Zeitlin, author of Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids. And, he notes, the reasons for applying the intervention are fairly diverse and not uniformly related to kids.
The most practical use for ignoring kids is in behavior modification. But in order to use silence correctly, parents need to start by being observant and specific about what they want to change. That means that the first priority for parents is agreeing on what silence is intended to accomplish and communicating that information to the child.
How to Use the Silent Treatment to Discipline a Child
- Make sure that you know which behavior you’re trying to modify before using the silent treatment for discipline
- Communicate to your child the reason for using the silent treatment
- Make sure that your child is in a place where they can be safe without supervision or prompts
- Remain as calm as possible. Silence shouldn’t be an act of anger.
Once expectations are clear and the kid is definitely not in a position to do something stupid without supervision, it’s time to stop reacting. It might be a tough ask, at first, but it’s important to remember that parents are adults, and as such, they have the unique ability to better cope with emotions. Keeping calm is what makes ignoring work.
“It’s a space for your kid to do what they need to do,” Zeitlin says. “But without being unsafe and without necessarily creating a feedback loop where they’re getting what they need to get or avoiding what they’re trying to avoid.”
And silence doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Ignoring a kid while they’re outside, for instance, is a great idea as long as the kid knows not to run into the street or walk away with a stranger. Likewise, ignoring a kid and their friend as a negotiation over a toy becomes heated can allow the duo to sharpen their negotiation and problem-solving skills as long as they know you’re out of the picture to begin with.
“Like anything in parenting, changing your move last minute doesn’t help anything,” says Zeitlin. “But you can telegraph that this is how we work.”
Finally, ignoring can work as a way for parents to be themselves again, because ignoring can create a necessary boundary between parents and children. Without it, parents lose themselves to constant subjugation. That’s maladaptive behavior too. “If we want our kid’s behavior to change it needs to start with us,” Zeitlin says. “I believe that it is healthier to have some boundaries between where your self stops and where your child’s needs begin.”