Giving Your Teen the Silent Treatment

It takes two to tango. You cannot have a tug of war without people pulling on both ends of the rope.  And, an argument between a parent and a teenager requires both participants to vocally state their point of view on the issue at hand. 

To halt the tango, one partner merely has to stop moving. To end the tug of war, the people on one end of the rope merely need to let go. And to stop the argument, one person just has to stop speaking.

In short, one way to handle an argumentative teenager is to not speak. Silence makes anyone uncomfortable, especially teenagers. They simply are not accustomed to having their parents in their physical presence and saying nothing. Try it and watch your teen twitch.

I am particularly in favor of trying silence when teenagers are at their verbal worst. That is, when they are calling people names, threatening to move out or quit school, making declarations about not being loved, or using any of the crude insults they’ve learned to deploy in their campaign to dominate their parents. Unfortunately, when teenagers behave this way, they are being so provocative that most adults feel compelled to respond to the behavior. But no matter how difficult it may be, my recommendation is that parents refrain from speaking; merely stare and say nothing.  

When teenagers argue, they are dominated by an emotional, reactive part of the brain. This part has little capacity for reflection. But when emotion subsides, a more reflective part of the brain takes over and reviews the argument made by the reactive part. In a sense, it reviews the mental tape that was “recording” while the argument took place. If there is only one voice on the tape (the teenager’s), and it sounds idiotic at best and virtually insane at worst, the reflective part of the brain will notice and possibly learn from it. However, if there are two voices on the tape – the teen’s and the parent’s – and both are exhibiting idiocy and possibly insanity, the reflective part of the teenager’s brain will later rule that the reactive part was fully justified in all it said (and did).

I hazard to guess it would be almost impossible to find a parent of a teenager who hasn’t felt bad about having an argument with his or her lovely, but occasionally contentious, child. I would also hazard to guess it would be virtually impossible to find a parent who ever won such an argument. That is, a situation where a parent argued a point so successfully that the teenager, in the middle of the argument, stopped, complimented the wisdom of the parent’s perspective and promised to do better in the future.  

Regardless of who is involved, most arguments merely match reactive brain part against reactive brain part and neither side gives an inch. That is why the argument – although widely and frequently used – is not a very effective strategy for teaching a teenager something.

Teaching can take place only when someone is willing to listen. By becoming the silent partner in an argument with your teen, you can set the stage for some real teaching to begin.

Read all articles in this series.