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What does silent treatment do to a child?

The silent treatment, also known as the cold shoulder, is a passive-aggressive form of communication where one person deliberately avoids or ignores another person. While the silent treatment can be used on anyone, when a parent gives the silent treatment to a child, it can have profound negative effects on the child’s emotional and psychological well-being.

In this article, we will explore what the silent treatment is, reasons why parents use it on children, and the damaging impact it can have on a child’s development and relationships. Understanding the harmful effects of the silent treatment can help parents find alternative, healthier ways to communicate and discipline their children.

What Is the Silent Treatment?

The silent treatment refers to deliberately avoiding interactions with or ignoring someone as a way to punish, hurt, or control the other person. It often involves:

  • Refusing to acknowledge someone’s presence
  • Avoiding communication and eye contact
  • Withholding intimacy or affection
  • Excluding someone from activities or conversations
  • Acting coldly or indifferently towards the person

Unlike taking space to cool down from an argument, the silent treatment is meant to hurt the other person by making them feel nonexistent, unworthy, or worthless. It can last for hours, days, or even weeks on end if the person choosing to use it refuses to be the one to end it.

Why Do Parents Use the Silent Treatment on Children?

Though unacceptable, there are a few common reasons a parent may rely on giving their child the silent treatment:

As a Control Tactic

Some parents use the silent treatment as a way to control their child’s behavior through emotional manipulation. By withdrawing attention and affection, the parent hopes to hurt, shame, or scare the child into compliance. The threat of being ignored again reinforces the control.

As a Punishment

Parents may use silence as a punitive technique, punishing the child for perceived misbehavior, disobedience, or for upsetting the parent in some way. The parent withholds communication and warmth as a form of correction.

Learned Behavior

Having grown up experiencing the silent treatment themselves, some parents subconsciously repeat the unhealthy pattern with their own children. Though painful, it feels normal to them.

Inability to Handle Conflict

Some parents avoid direct confrontation about disagreements with their child by refusing to engage at all. Rather than discussing the issue, they stonewall or cutoff communication entirely.

As Emotional Relief

Caring for children can be taxing. Some emotionally exhausted parents use silence as a break from the demands of parenting. Unfortunately, the relief is at the child’s expense.

How Does the Silent Treatment Impact Children?

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the silent treatment from a parent can significantly damage a child’s social-emotional health. The effects may include:

Feelings of Rejection and Abandonment

Being ignored by a parent leaves children feeling deeply rejected and abandoned. Children require love and attention from their parents to build security and self-worth. Silence from a parent undermines this.


Children look to parents for stability, care, and guidance. When a parent inexplicably withdraws these things, it causes enormous confusion for a child. They cannot make sense of the sudden rejection.


Children tend to blame themselves when a parent is suddenly cold or silent. They may wrongly assume they did something terribly wrong to make their parent stop caring about them. This damages self-esteem.


The unpredictability of when a parent will give the silent treatment again can create ongoing anxiety for a child. They walk on eggshells, worried they will trigger more rejection.

Anger Issues

The helpless feelings of being unable to make the parent stop ignoring them can brew rage in children that comes out in unhealthy ways, like aggression or tantrums.


To cope with the pain of the silent treatment, some children learn to emotionally withdraw as well. They shut down and isolate themselves from relationships to avoid further hurt.

Difficulty with Relationships

The trust issues, low self-worth, and communication problems stemming from the silent treatment follow children into adulthood, impeding healthy relationships.


Recurrent feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness resulting from a parent’s rejection and ignoring can put children at risk for depression and low moods.

Developmental Delays

Children need stimulation, interaction, and nurturing from parents to thrive. Lack of communication during the silent treatment may impede a child’s language, social skill, and cognitive development.

Better Discipline Strategies for Parents

The silent treatment has no benefits and substantial emotional risks for children. If parents find themselves using it, there are healthier, more effective discipline strategies they can employ instead including:

Give Warnings

Before consequences, children should be warned they are at risk of disciplinary action for their behavior and be allowed to correct it. The warnings give them agency.

Use Natural Consequences

Have consequences directly tie into the behavior when needed. For example, if they are careless with toys, take impacted toys away temporarily.

Redirect Behavior

Guide misbehaving young children into more positive behaviors instead of punishing them. Redirect them into activities that engage them constructively.

Model Problem Solving

Discuss issues calmly with older children rather than ignoring them. Jointly brainstorm compromises, solutions, and ways to prevent future problems.

Allow Safe Emotional Release

Children often misbehave when overwhelmed by “big feelings.” Allow them safe ways to vent frustration before addressing behavior problems.

Offer Loving Guidance

When children act out, they still need parents’ love, empathy and guidance. Avoid power struggles by reconnecting warmly after correcting behavior.

Do Not Use Silence as Punishment

Ignoring children harms their self-esteem and your bond with them. Find ways to address misbehavior without withdrawal of care and affection.

Apologize For Lapses

If you slip into silence, sincerely apologize, explain how you’ll avoid it in the future, and reassure your child they are loved.


Though some parents resort to using the silent treatment believe it an effective means of controlling or disciplining children, it has severe negative psychological impacts. Children require consistent care and communication from their parents to develop healthfully. Stonewalling or ignoring children harms self-esteem, emotional security, and parent-child bonds. Parents should aim to be mindful of their child’s emotional needs even during moments of tension or misbehavior and find more constructive ways to guide behavior without withdrawing warmth or inflicting rejection. With self-awareness and the adoption of responses like warnings, empathetic redirection, and open discussion of problems, parents can discipline effectively without the harmful silence.