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Why the Silent Treatment Works

Person holding one lip to finger, Shh!

An argument between a parent and a teenager requires both to state their point of view. To stop the argument, one person (the parent) simply has to stop speaking because:

  • Silence makes people uncomfortable, especially teenagers. They simply are not accustomed to having their parents in their physical presence and saying nothing.
  • Silence is particularly effective when teenagers are at their verbal worst. That is, when they're calling people names, threatening to move out or quit school, making declarations about not being loved or using crude insults and foul language.  

In addition, when teenagers argue, they do so from an emotional, reactive part of their brain that has little capacity for reflection. But when emotions subside, a more reflective part of the brain takes over and reviews the argument in a more objective way. By not talking, a parent can trigger this reflective part of the teen's brain so the teen can objectively judge what he or she is saying.

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 an argument is not a very effective teaching strategy, and why withdrawing from one by not speaking is one way a parent can end or prevent them.