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Silent treatment is the refusal to communicate verbally and electronically with someone who is trying to communicate and elicit a response. It may range from just sulking to malevolent abusive controlling behaviour. It may be a passive-aggressive form of emotional abuse in which displeasure, disapproval and contempt is exhibited through nonverbal gestures while maintaining verbal silence.[1] Clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker identifies it as a form of manipulative punishment.[2] It may be used as a form of social rejection; according to the social psychologist Kipling Williams, it is the most common form of ostracism.

Origin of term

The term originated from "treatment" through silence, which was fashionable in prisons in the 19th century.[where?] In use since the prison reforms of 1835[where?], the silent treatment was used in prisons as an alternative to physical punishment, as it was believed that forbidding prisoners from speaking, calling them by a number rather than their name, and making them cover their faces so they couldn't see each other would encourage reflection on their crimes.[3]

In interpersonal relationships

In a relationship, the silent treatment can be a difficult pattern to break and resolve because if it is ingrained, relationships may gradually deteriorate.[4] The silent treatment is more likely to be used by individuals with low self-esteem and a low tolerance for conflict. In order to avoid conflict, an individual will refuse to acknowledge it and will sometimes use silent treatment as a control mechanism.[5] Enactors of the silent treatment punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the enactors "loudly" communicate their displeasure, anger, upset and frustration.[6] These feelings can elicit a maladaptive response from victims with high rejection sensitivity levels, which can often lead to violence and more physical displays of aggression.[7]

Purposeful silence is a form of attention seeking behavior and can generate desired responses, such as attention, or a feeling of power from creating uncertainty for the victim. Unfortunately, the avoidance of conflict in the form of silent treatment is psychologically exhausting for all involved parties and leads to the irreparable deterioration of meaningful romantic and familial relationships.[8]

Tactical ignoring

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Silence and non-responsiveness are not only passive-aggressive forms of manipulation and attention seeking; they can also be used as tools to promote changes in behavior. Tactical ignoring is a strategy where a person gives no outward sign of recognizing a behavior, such as no eye contact, no verbal or physical response, or acknowledgment that a message has been read. However, it is a very active process as the person remains acutely aware of the behavior and monitors the individual to observe what the individual has planned and ensure their safety or the safety of others. It is a technique that is often employed in parent-child relationships[9] and is similar to the silent treatment because tactical ignoring is a behavioral management technique that, when correctly applied, can convey the message that a person's behavior will not lead to their desired outcome. It may also result in the reduction of undesirable behaviors.[10]

Tactical ignoring can be one element of a behavior management plan when there are a variety of challenging behaviors being addressed. Because it is a method that involves not responding to an undesirable behavior, it should be complemented by differential reinforcement for an alternative behavior, as seen in functional communication training, a procedure to teach a more appropriate attention-seeking behavior.[11] Planned ignoring can be used for mild and low impact in terms of helping behavioral issues stemming from attention seeking and power struggles. Power struggles are when a child refuses to do something and it is an ongoing battle of insisting the child to comply.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b Booth, Sally Scollay (2017). "Planned Ignoring". The Challenge of Teaching. pp. 181–187. doi:10.1007/978-981-10-2571-6_25. ISBN 978-981-10-2569-3. Retrieved 1 August 2016.
  2. ^ Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Who's Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. McGraw Hill Professional. ISBN 0-07-144672-9.
  3. ^ London, The Kolberg Partnership. "London's Most Notorious Prisons – Page – Life In London Magazine – All In London". Archived from the original on 29 Aug 2016. Retrieved 1 August 2016.
  4. ^ USA Today (August 3, 2014) Silent treatment speaks volumes about a relationship
  5. ^ Rittenour, Christine E.; Kromka, Stephen M.; Saunders, Russell Kyle; Davis, Kaitlin; Garlitz, Kathryn; Opatz, Sarah N.; Sutherland, Andrew; Thomas, Matthew (2019-01-02). "Socializing the Silent Treatment: Parent and Adult Child Communicated Displeasure, Identification, and Satisfaction". Journal of Family Communication. 19 (1): 77–93. doi:10.1080/15267431.2018.1543187. ISSN 1526-7431. S2CID 149541777.
  6. ^ Gregory L. (2009) Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse
  7. ^ Cain, Nicole M.; De Panfilis, Chiara; Meehan, Kevin B.; Clarkin, John F. (2017-01-02). "A Multisurface Interpersonal Circumplex Assessment of Rejection Sensitivity". Journal of Personality Assessment. 99 (1): 35–45. doi:10.1080/00223891.2016.1186032. ISSN 0022-3891. PMID 27292201. S2CID 24364760.
  8. ^ Williams, Kipling D (2002). Ostracism: The power of silence. Guilford.
  9. ^ "Ignoring | Consequences | Essentials | Parenting Information | CDC". 2020-06-08. Retrieved 2022-11-20.
  10. ^ Gable, R. A., Hester, P. H., Rock, M. L., & Hughes, K. G. (2009). "Back to basics: Rules, praise, ignoring, and reprimands revisited". Intervention in School and Clinic. 44 (4): 195–205. doi:10.1177/1053451208328831. S2CID 145420670.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Carr, Edward G.; Durand, V. Mark (Summer 1985). "Reducing behavior problems through functional communication training". Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 18 (2): 111–126. doi:10.1901/jaba.1985.18-111. PMC 1307999. PMID 2410400.

Further reading