Crucial Skills®

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How to Respond to the Silent Treatment

Dear Joseph,

A couple of months ago, my father stopped answering phone calls and texts from my siblings and me. He hasn’t been home when we’ve attempted to visit him. He doesn’t have voicemail. We’ve reached out to his wife who says she doesn’t want to get in the middle of it. He did answer a phone call from my brother’s wife about one month ago but told her it wasn’t the time or place to talk about it. He sent my nephews a birthday gift, but he signed it with his first name instead of the usual “Papa” signature. I sent him a text that asked if he was planning on telling us what he’s upset about or if he’s just done with us. In the text, I said I would assume a non-response meant he was done with us, and I would not bother him again. He didn’t respond.

Deafening Silence

Dear Deafening Silence,

You’ve written your question in a mysterious way. In fact, I feel as though I am in a similar deafening silence while trying to respond. You’ve offered nothing of context. So, I am left to either conclude that:

  1. There were no incidents that preceded your father’s abrupt separation that may offer clues to his motivations; or
  2. You believe there is something I could offer to help you reconnect that would operate independent of these incidents.

If #1 is correct, you have my sympathy. If his behavior was abrupt and inexplicable, I can only conclude that he is going through something that I hope will sometime come to light. However, painful as it is, you must honor his boundary. If later evidence emerges that he is engaged in some self-destructive path, you may want to intervene. But otherwise, he is making a choice and it falls to you to reconcile yourself to it.

If #2 more accurately describes the situation, my advice is very clear: work on you first, him second. If things happened that you know are connected with his new behavior, then your best approach is:

  1. Examine yourself. Invite feedback from those who are sympathetic to your father’s views. Ask them to help you see how the way you or others acted may have given him cause for offense or hurt. Look hard. Sometimes, all you need to do for someone to feel offended is nothing. Perhaps you failed to smile, failed to call, failed to reciprocate. You won’t understand his behavior until you create enough safety that he is willing to unravel his story for you.
  2. Own what you can. Do your best to brainstorm the hurtful stories he might be telling about these incidents. Then reach out one last time demonstrating your willingness to own what you can. For example, you might send a text that says “Dad, I understand you aren’t ready to talk. I accept that. I just want you to know that as I thought about Thanksgiving, I realize I spent more time talking with cousins and almost no time talking with you, even though it was the anniversary of Mom’s death. I regret that. I love you and am here to talk when you want.”
  3. Honor his boundary, but ping periodically. If after doing #1 and #2 you are met with more silence, move on. But I find it helpful to periodically send a note that messes with the story he might be telling himself. For example, after a month of silence, you might text: “Hey, Dad. I know I’m imperfect. Hoping you’ll help me see how sometime.”

I hope these ideas help you find a path that leads to reconnection at some future time.


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6 thoughts on “How to Respond to the Silent Treatment”

  1. Leisha

    Fantastic article, as always. I have a lot to learn and appreciate your responses to these real-life examples. Stay safe during this difficult time.

  2. Therea

    You answered a question before I even knew how to phrase it! Amazingly good timing on this! Thank you so much. My case is a silent son. He deals with mental health issues and legal issues which contribute to the situation. I have been an imperfect mom to him and I feel I never know what to do or say… he can be very defensive.

    At any rate, “work on yourself first” is great advice… I want to be ready when he does re-emerge. Thank you so much for your newsletter!

  3. robyn1001

    I’m a psychotherapist and I loved your response! Wouldn’t have been able to say it any better, if even close. Great examples.

  4. Jean Pollari

    I had a similar issue with my Mother many years ago. She would exit a phone conversation after only a few minutes. She stopped signing birthday cards and had my Dad sign for her. We later realized that her symptoms were consistent with the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I encourage you to consider this option. It is painful to acknowledge that someone you love has this terrible disease, but early treatment can give them a few more good years. Knowing the cause can also help you come to terms with their behavior.

  5. Jessica Thomson

    Such a beautiful way to handle a heart-breaking situation. The advice given on this blog never fails to amaze me in its simplicity and empathy.

  6. James D Williamson

    I agree with Jean Pollari, the third reason may be a health issue like a stroke. A health issue should always be considered for elderly.

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