Not long ago, I found myself in conversation with a young daddy. After asking what I did for a living, he volunteered that he and his wife had an 18 month old who had been having frequent tantrums.
“We give him the silent treatment. It makes him really mad but if we ignore him, eventually he stops. What do you think about that?”
I smiled and said, “I think that sometimes parents have to do whatever gets you through the day; I’m not in the business of judging! But if you’re asking my opinion, I’m happy to share it.”
He insisted that he wanted to hear what I had to say, so I’ll share with you what I said to this loving poppa:
Children don’t need us to be perfect. Sometimes, we’re so overloaded that we simply can’t show up with tenderness and understanding. Sometimes we scold, we yell, or we pull away.
And sometimes a child pokes at us to get attention or just stir up some excitement, in which case it’s fine to be minimalistic in our response.
But if we regularly ignore a child when he is overwhelmed with emotions, we may unintentionally send a message that strong feelings are somehow wrong. This can fuel a child disowning parts of himself that are challenging or uncomfortable.
Relying on the silent treatment as a parenting strategy flies in the face of one of my core teachings — that children thrive when parents function as the calm, steady Captain of the ship, capable of navigating stormy seas when a child is trying to stay afloat in life’s “rough waters.”
This is part of what attunement is all about. We acknowledge the flood of feelings with words like, “Aw buddy…this isn’t what you wanted right now. It looks like you’re really mad/ sad/ afraid.”
I told this dad that even if he thinks his toddler is “overreacting” (which is entirely age-appropriate), it would be best not to withhold love and attention.
In his beautiful book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, John Welwood writes that “all our relational problems arise out of a universal ‘wound of the heart’ that affects not only our personal relationships but the quality of life in our world as a whole. This core wound shows up as a pervasive mood of unlove — a deep sense that we are not intrinsically lovable just as we are. It shuts down our capacity to trust, so that even though we may hunger for love, we have difficulty opening to it and letting it circulate freely through us.”
Many of us grew up being ignored when we were naughty. Given a child’s need for connection, that approach can certainly get the job done. But it comes at a price.
When we give our children the gift of presence and acceptance when they’re struggling, they begin to internalize that all of them is lovable, leading them toward a life where they are kinder and more loving toward themselves.
Something to think about!