The silent treatment is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse that narcissists use to make their victims feel insecure and fearful. For narcissistic parents, it’s an especially effective tactic, given that young children need their parents and don’t yet have the emotional maturity to respond effectively. So what can you do about the narcissistic silent treatment?
Depending on the situation, there are several possible responses, but the most important part of any of the tactics I’ll talk about below is to not show the narcissist that their silence is getting to you. If they see that it’s working, they’ll dig in and use it every time they want something.
My mother is a narcissist, and she used this tactic extensively, so I know exactly how it makes you feel. When I got old enough to realize what my mother was doing when she gave me the silent treatment, I stopped letting her know it was working. I used the tactics I present below, and they worked like a charm. Let me show you how the following strategies can help you disarm one of your narcissistic mother’s most potent weapons.
What Can You Do About the Silent Treatment?
The silent treatment is one of the most effective manipulation tactics a narcissistic mother can use. If you’re unfamiliar with the abuse tactics of a narcissistic mother, check out this video for 10 tactics they use and the effects of their abuse. They use it in different ways and for different reasons, but the following strategies will give you a response no matter what the situation.
Of course, young children don’t really understand what’s happening when a narcissistic parent, particularly a mother, uses the silent treatment for any reason. All they know is that their mother is no longer responding to them, and she is someone they need.
But when you get old enough to know this is a toxic abuse tactic, there are strategies that you can implement, even if her silent treatment has been working for many years. Let’s take a look at these effective strategies to make your narcissistic mother stop her silent abuse.
Recognize It’s Not Healthy
The first thing it’s important to do is to recognize that the silent treatment is not a healthy form of communication. Narcissists use this tactic often as a means to throw their victims off balance, to keep them feeling insecure and fearful.
It can be very effective, particularly for a mother, because you may not understand why you’re getting the silent treatment. I know there were many times when my mother would just stop talking to me, and to my knowledge, I hadn’t done anything to merit that response.
I would ask her if there was a problem, and she either wouldn’t answer me at all, or she would only respond with a word or two. It was confusing and frustrating because it didn’t seem like there was a pattern to when she would go silent.
As I got older and more mature, I began to see that she used the silent treatment for a couple of different reasons, but none of them were healthy. Effective communication strategies are those that are open and honest while still being presented in a kind manner.
The silent treatment doesn’t express a need or desire, nor is it kind. It’s the equivalent of an adult throwing a temper tantrum, and if you give into it, just like the kid who starts screaming and yelling in the grocery store, your narcissistic mother will use it every time.
There are times when your mother might need or want something, and she may have valid reasons to express her emotions. But the key word here is express. If she’s giving you the silent treatment, she’s not expressing anything.
To really deal with this kind of manipulation, you have to recognize for yourself that it’s not a healthy strategy. Then you can start to respond more effectively.
Understand that You Deserve More
As part of recognizing that the silent treatment is not a healthy communication strategy, it’s important to understand that you deserve better than that. You deserve better if you’re the child, spouse, parent, sibling, friend, or coworker of a narcissist.
The silent treatment is kind of like expecting someone to be able to read your mind. Your narcissistic mother wants you to somehow intuit what she is angry about or what she needs. The problem is that doesn’t work with anyone.
You deserve more than the silent treatment. That’s true for anyone in your life, but it’s particularly true for your mother. A mother is supposed to be a nurturing presence in a child’s life, and part of that is expressing her emotions in a healthy way.
But you can’t do anything about her silent treatment until you understand that you are worthy of being treated better. This is often a problem for the children of narcissistic parents because they don’t know any better.
I didn’t realize that other people’s mothers didn’t treat them like mine treated me until I got a little older. Then, even when I did know it wasn’t healthy, I still had deeply rooted feelings of being unworthy of better treatment.
This is part of the problem with this form of toxic abuse. The children of narcissistic parents are scarred long before they can understand intellectually and emotionally that what’s happening isn’t healthy.
I can tell you unequivocally that you deserve more than the silent, and you deserve more than an emotionally stifled, abusive mother. When you realize that, you can really start being more effective in your interactions with a narcissistic abuser.
Express that Silence is Unhealthy
Once you have come to understand that the silent treatment is not healthy and that you deserve better, it’s time to express that to your narcissistic mother. Just like she can’t expect you to read her mind, you can’t expect her to read yours.
When you notice that she is giving you the silent treatment, ask her if there is a problem. Give her the opportunity to talk to you about what she might want or need from you. If she refuses and continues to be silent, then let her know that’s not a healthy or effective strategy.
Express to her that you are interested in hearing what she has to say and that you’re willing to listen carefully, but if she won’t speak up, there is no way for you to know what she needs. I told my mother these very sentiments, and then when she still stayed silent, I was able to move on.
I had done all that I could do. I told her I cared and gave her the opportunity to express herself. Beyond that, there was little else I could do, so I told her that and went back to doing my own thing. Believe it or not, she came around and started telling me what she needed from me.
It didn’t solve everything, but it was the start of a more healthy way of interacting. That’s about as much as you can hope for with a narcissistic mother.
This is also part of realizing something you need to deal with versus what is something she needs to deal with. You have to discover what your stuff is and deal with it, but as you do that, you will also discover what someone else’s stuff is and that you need to give back to them.
Keep it Casual
Another key to interacting with a mother who is giving you the silent treatment is staying casual. You need to let them know that you’re not going to take them seriously as long as they’re acting so childishly.
If you ask them what’s wrong, and they refuse to answer, just shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes and go on your way. The goal of giving someone the silent treatment is to make them worry about what’s up with you.
If that isn’t working for your narcissistic mother, she’ll quickly move on to another tactic. That tactic is not likely to be any healthier than the silent treatment, but at least you’ll know what the problem is.
Staying cool, calm, and casual is one of the best ways to make your narcissistic mother realize that you aren’t going to be stressing about whatever is bothering her. You’ll get results very quickly with this tactic.
A friend of mine had tried everything with her narcissistic husband, but she just couldn’t get him to talk to her when he had a problem. When she finally stopped worrying about it, he started coming around.
The narcissist wants you to know what’s going on with them, and in fact, since they see you as an extension of their own identity, they often feel you should just know. When you don’t know, and you aren’t worried about it, they will come around and start talking.
Apologize if You’ve Done Something Wrong
When you do finally find out what’s up with your narcissistic mother, you should apologize if you’ve really done something wrong. Don’t apologize for anything you didn’t do, but don’t withhold an apology when you genuinely did something you feel bad about.
Apologizing doesn’t mean your narcissistic mother will start talking to you. In fact, she might still give you the silent treatment as a form of punishment, but you’ve done all that can be expected.
If you’ve done something wrong, you apologize and try not to do it again. That’s all you can do, and though most narcissists won’t consider that good enough, it is.
If your narcissistic mother can’t accept your apology, that’s her problem. This is another part of separating out what’s yours and what’s hers. I remember one time I lied to my mother because I didn’t want her to meet a new boyfriend of mine.
I was terrified of how she might treat me in front of him and how she might treat him. So I didn’t tell her about him. When she finally found out, she gave me the silent treatment for more than a week. I apologized to her, but it did no good.
I was wrong for lying to her. She is my mother and had a right to know about someone I was dating at that young age (I was 16). My fears and insecurities were my stuff, but her silent treatment as a form of punishment was her stuff.
Her inability to accept my apology was part of her pathology, not mine. I had to realize that and let her stew in her own silent rage. She finally came around and started talking to me again when she saw that her silence wasn’t doing what she wanted it to do.
Don’t Beg Her to Talk to You
It’s important that I never begged my mother to talk to me. If you beg a narcissist to start talking to you, you’re showing them that their silent treatment is effective. That’s the last thing you want to do.
If a narcissist sees weakness, they will exploit it as long as they can. If you are begging your narcissistic mother to talk to you, you’re showing that her strategy is working. You feel weak and fearful, and that’s exactly what she wants.
Remember to keep it casual and don’t beg her to talk to you. It won’t work, and she’ll know just how effective the silent treatment is in getting you to do what she wants.
As I noted earlier, it’s fine to ask her what’s wrong, but if she refuses to answer, then let it go. As one therapist told me, you’ve done what you can, and now it’s her responsibility to express her needs.
Give Her the Opportunity to Do Better
You always want to give your narcissistic mother the opportunity to step up and do better. This means listening actively when she does break her silence and tell you what’s up.
Active listening is a tactic that helps you have empathy with the person to whom you’re talking. It means listening to what they say as if everything they say is true. You don’t have to accept it as true, but listening as if it is true will help you understand their point of view.
When your mother does break her silence and express her needs, you should listen as if what she is saying is true. Then you can honestly say, “I understand your point of view, and if I thought someone had done something like that to me, I would feel the same way.”
From there, you can go on to express what you feel or need. For example, when I had lied to my mother about my boyfriend, I did apologize, but she continued her silent treatment. When she did break her silence, I listened to her express her disappointment that I didn’t feel like we were closer than that.
I told her that I can understand why she would be disappointed when she finds out her daughter has lied to her about something so important. I told her I would feel the same way if I had a daughter who did that too.
From there, I was able to calmly express to her my fears about how she might treat me in front of him. I was able to give her examples of how she had said or done things in the past in front of my friends that were embarrassing for me. It was one small step toward a healthier relationship between us.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries is really about respecting yourself. When you recognize what your limits are and can express them in a calm manner, you’re indicating you have value, and you respect yourself.
Most narcissists will not respect your boundaries, so you have to impose consequences for boundary violations. You also have to enforce those consequences every time your narcissistic mother crosses the line.
It’s the only way to get her to respect your limits. As a minor child, this may be more difficult to do, but as an adult, you can impose consequences like leaving, not talking to her, or even going no contact.
It’s important to communicate both your boundaries and the consequences for any violations to your narcissistic mother so that she can’t claim she didn’t know this would happen. You can even give them to her in writing.
I had to set and enforce boundaries on several occasions before my narcissistic mother started to respect them. But she did start to respect them. We now have far fewer problems than we did in the past.
If you’ve tried everything else and your narcissistic mother is still giving you the silent treatment, it’s time to simply ignore her. The whole point of the silent treatment is to make you anxious about how she is feeling.
If that’s not working, then she will have to give it up. After all, having her not talk to you isn’t the worst punishment in the world. You’re only conditioned to think that because, as a child, you need her.
You were dependent on her in every way, and her silence was an unspoken threat that she could withdraw her care for you. Of course, you were terrified then, but now it’s only a conditioned response.
As an adult, you can take care of your own needs, and if she doesn’t want to talk to you, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it might be a welcome respite from her personality disordered behavior.
Limit Your Contact
Another way you can handle the silent treatment from a narcissistic mother is to simply limit your contact with her. As an adult, you can choose when, where, and for how long you’ll be around your narcissistic mother.
I had to do this with mine until she realized that I was serious about being treated with respect. Once that became clear to her, we were able to start interacting longer because we were both treating each other with more respect.
The thing about using these techniques is that it not only helps your mother to interact with you in a healthier way, but they also help you be more empathetic and kind to her. That acts as a form of positive reinforcement which encourages her to continue being respectful.
You can also control what you will talk about when you’re around your narcissistic mother so that you can ensure the topics won’t lead to toxic behaviors. In short, you have to break down and rebuild your relationship with her so that it will be healthier.
What are the Forms of the Silent Treatment?
As Purdue psychologist, Kipling Williams writes in the book, Ostracism: The Power of Silence, “Few events in life are more painful than feeling that others, especially those whom we admire and care about, want nothing to do with us. There may be no better way to communicate this impression than for others to treat you as though you are invisible – like you didn’t exist,”
It’s difficult to believe your own mother would be this abusive, but the following video has some information on why they are so abusive. She won’t hesitate to make you feel small, but there is more than one way to make someone feel invisible. Your mother might use the silent treatment to manipulate you into behaving a certain way or doing a certain thing.
As soon as you relent, she starts talking. But sometimes, she’s using the silent treatment as a form of punishment. You’ve done something she doesn’t like, and she’s punishing you with her silence.
Another reason she might be using the silent treatment is to both punish and disempower you. If she is refusing to tell you why she’s not talking to you, it’s a way to punish you, but it also makes you powerless to offer an apology. How can you apologize if you don’t even know what you’ve done?
The last form of the silent treatment is when it is simply used to disempower you. An example of this would be when you say something that usually would require a response, and she simply ignores it or changes the subject. It’s as if what you said didn’t exist or isn’t important.
Whatever the reason for her silence, it’s usually effective because when she wants something from you, she can be very charming. She love-bombs you to get what she wants, and by contrast, her silence feels so very cold.
The silent treatment is an effective form of manipulation and abuse used by narcissists and other toxic people. When it’s your own mother who’s doing this, it can be extremely effective since you’ve grown up with this kind of emotional abuse. It’s effective, in part, because it can trigger old wounds and produce a strong emotional response.
I developed a 5-Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers that can help you recognize, defuse, and even heal those old wounds so narcissists and other toxic people can’t trigger you. If you would like a free copy of this handy guide, just click on this link. I’ll send it directly to your inbox.
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