I was raised by a mom who used the silent treatment. Whenever she was really mad about something- maybe once a month- she’d just shut down for several days at a time and not talk to anyone except to sneer at them. This only applied to people in my immediate family- my dad and I- as she’d easily turn around and be smiley and chatty with her father on the phone or a neighbour, and then continue to freeze me/my dad out. This has been going on for about as long as I can remember- one incident in particular stands out, when she refused to even make me dinner. I was about eight at the time. As I got older, it grew less damaging, since I didn’t rely so much on her approval, but it still left scars. She was my primary caregiver- my dad also lived with us, but he’s not so great at parenting as opposed to being a pal, so she was the only authority I really looked up to at home, and in my childhood, I needed a lot of looking after. (I had and have several leaning/social disabilities that necessitated a lot of care.)
Now I’m in my early twenties, and I think this treatment may have left some scars I’m not entirely sure how to deal with. When my mother is quiet or avoids me for extended periods of time, I start to freak out because I think I’ve done something “wrong.” (When she did this when I was a child, she never told me what she was angry about, so I had to guess until I got it right.) Even when I confront her and she insists she’s not mad about anything, it doesn’t calm me down, because I feel like she’s trying to make me guess again. This may be tied to my social anxiety, which I’ve been working on with a therapist, but I think it’s also just a byproduct of how I was raised. It’s also affected how I make decisions- whenever she disagrees with something I want to do about my life (enter a school program, move to a different place) I start to panic and second-guess myself because she’s been The Authority in my life for so long. I can’t talk to her about this, because whenever I do, she turns it into a conversation about what I’ve done to frustrate or anger her, and I end up defending myself instead of explaining to her that she’s hurt me. We’ve been trapped in this pattern for so long, I don’t even know if she realizes she’s doing it, or that it has this effect on me. How do I stop myself from being this needy child who’s desperate for her mother’s approval?
The Sound of Silence
Dear Sound of Silence
Thanks for your letter. I think it speaks to many, many of the writers in my inbox who I will probably not have time to answer, so if you’ve written something similar consider this your answer. And Sound of Silence, you are definitely not alone.
I recommend cutting off pesky would-be or former dating partners and toxic relationships all the time, and say that silence or no answer IS an answer. I think it can be liberating and healthy for relationships that you don’t want to be involved in anymore, when you’re tired of trying to exit “gracefully” from a situation or let someone down easy, when you’ve said “No but thanks” and the other person just isn’t hearing you, when you’ve broken up or ended a friendship.
And I also recommend ending conversations with people who are pushing your boundaries. “We should end this conversation.” “Let’s talk later when we’ve both cooled off.” “I’m going to go upstairs for a bit, I’ll see you later.” Leaving a room or withdrawing your attention when you’ve asked someone to stop badgering you about something and they won’t. Bailing on a discussion can be a healthy way of enforcing boundaries.
But the Silent Treatment (of a child by a parent, of a romantic parter, of any intimate ongoing relationship) – days of sharing a space with someone and being silent and shutting them out except to glare at them – is 100% emotional abuse. This right here?
“When my mother is quiet or avoids me for extended periods of time, I start to freak out because I think I’ve done something “wrong.” (When she did this when I was a child, she never told me what she was angry about, so I had to guess until I got it right.)”
This is a power play designed to make you feel powerless and shitty and shut out of things and dependent on the other person’s approval. It is definitely Not Okay.
Carolyn Hax (a personal hero of mine) writes about the Silent Treatment extensively. Some links:
- Silent treatment by a boyfriend over small disagreements. Verdict: Not Okay.
- The Silent Treatment: A Dealbreaker? (Verdict: Not Okay).
- Speak Out About The Silent Treatment (I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you. Silent Treatment = Not Okay).
Removing yourself from a discussion you don’t want to continue involves telling the other person what your boundaries are, asking for what you need, giving them a way to satisfy you (Let’s talk about something else please, or Let’s discuss it later, or Give me some time to think about this, or I need to be alone for a bit, or, If you bring that up again I’m going to have to end this conversation), and it has a pretty short shelf-life. If you’re removing yourself from a room or a conversation or even a relationship, you want the other person to go away and do their own thing.
The silent treatment is different. You want the other person to hang about and really FEEL the silence and be an audience for your anger. In fact, you expect it. You want them to plead with you to talk to them again. You want to put them in a position of having to please you or guess what they did wrong. They have no idea when it will end – the implied threat is that it will last forever. There isn’t a way that they can end it or make you happy, all the control lies with you. It’s 100% about control, in fact. It’s full of contempt, and contempt spells relationship death.
To do it to your child? When you have actual control over many aspects of their physical and emotional development? Is fucking unconscionable. This “I won’t tell you what you did wrong so you have to list all the bad things about yourself until you get it right” is controlling condescending bullshit. It. Is. So. Very. Wrong. And it sets up exactly the dynamic you’ve described, Sound of Silence. You’re an adult, but you still feel like you’re dancing for your mom’s approval.
You’re in therapy. That’s a very good idea. Please, please keep doing that and be totally honest about your history and your feelings with the counselor.
I strongly suggest that you read the book “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Dr. Karyl McBride. Form a book club with your therapist so you can both read it. I think you will find it incredibly relevant and possibly transformative.
We do not diagnose strangers through the internet around here. There are a couple of reasons for that. I have no clinical training, so I can’t tell if people are talking rot. You mostly have no clinical training. Some of you do have clinical training, so you know best of all: You can’t diagnose people you’ve never met, and even if you could, knowing that the problem has a name doesn’t do anything to solve it or even describe or predict reasonably how it’s playing out in a given situation.
Abuse victims are not obligated to act as their abuser’s therapist and help make up for past suffering or manage any diagnosable conditions. It’s better to focus on behaviors, and your own needs and feelings, and discuss specific strategies to stop or protect yourself from abusive behaviors rather than toss off “Oh, that’s sounds like _____ disorder. Solved it!”
So, I realize that recommending a book on parental narcissism looks like I’m breaking my own rules. You and I can’t say if “narcissism” is what’s going on with the LW’s mom, and if we could, we shouldn’t. But I have read that book and I think that it (and online discussions of parental narcissism) offer a lot of comfort and some good strategies for dealing with a controlling parent, especially the feeling like you are trying to please them and audition for them when making your own life choices as an adult. So I encourage commenters to share personal stories, strategies that have worked, etc., but I encourage you to focus on behaviors & specific recommendations for things the LW could do that have worked for you. [/Moderation Note]
Okay, one of the reasons I recommend that book is that the ways that you can take care of yourself around a controlling parent make you feel like you are being a bad daughter, when really your parent broke the contract long, long ago. So there is a lot of guilt and second-guessing. By setting and enforcing some boundaries, you will feel like you are hurting your mom (and you may be hurting her feelings a lot, and she will definitely use the Bad Daughter stick to try to get you to do what she wants), but really you are just taking good care of yourself. So if your relationship is difficult and fraught and sometimes not the way she would like it to go, too bad. She chose how she treated you. It may feel like you are causing badness, but she is choosing it.
There are a couple of things I recommend that you try IN CONSULTATION WITH YOUR THERAPIST. This is painful, primal stuff and I can’t promise any of it will be easy, but in my opinion (and some hard-won personal experience) it’s how you have any hope of resetting any kind of functional relationship with your mom. It will take a lot of time and telling stories to your therapist and setting boundaries and biting your tongue and grieving and letting things go.
Two big things right up front:
1. This relationship will probably never be 100% okay. A lot of the scripts for what parents and children *should* be like as adults just don’t apply to you. The silent treatment stuff, like tantrums, is really outside the norm of acceptable behavior for how a parent should treat a child or how anyone should treat anyone else. So don’t assume ANYTHING about how moms should react to things, like “Moms should be supportive of their children’s successes!” – your mom has already shown you she doesn’t work that way.
- Sucky: It’s painful and you’re going to do a lot of grieving for what might have been and what you should have had.
- Liberating: You are free of obligations to perform “What good daughters should do.” You don’t have to run your choices by her, visit her, go home for holidays, ask her for advice, listen to her opinions, or even ever talk to her again if you don’t want to. When you feel guilty, remind yourself: This is what she bought when she abused you.
The relationship may never be what it should be, but with some time and persistence and resilience on your part, it may get better than it is now.
2. Realize that there is no amount of “nice” and “accommodating” and “compliant” you could ever be that would make your mom 100% approve of you. Disapproval seems to be her default setting. So, don’t ask her advice about decisions in your life. She’s not safe. Present her with facts, preferably after-the-fact. “I moved here.” “I am going to work at this job.” “I met someone I like.” That way the threat of disapproval doesn’t hold you back from the things you want to do.
- Sucky: You’re without that nurturing, supportive parent that you should have, which feels alienating and lonely.
- Liberating: There’s no pleasing her, so focus on pleasing yourself. Do what you want. Make yourself happy.
3. Get some distance. If you live at home, move out. If you live nearby, consider moving away. Make someone else your emergency contact/key master. Get a Google voice number that you give her as your new cell phone number and filter the calls so that you see them only when you want to. Divorce your finances from your parents as much as you possibly can. Create that small quiet room for yourself where you can be truly yourself and be safe.
4. Reframe the times when she avoids you as a precious gift. She can’t shut you out and give you the silent treatment if you’re avoiding her. So one thing you could do is to decide for a fixed period of time that you will not be in touch with her, and that you’ll let her be the first to reach out.
If you want, you can let her know in advance (again, consult your therapist). “Mom, I won’t be in touch for a few weeks. I’ll call you and dad on (date).” I think it’s Comrade Physioproffe, Noted Commenter who never answers calls for certain people – he just calls them back when he feels like it, even if it’s five minutes later because they’ve shown they don’t respect boundaries. It takes time and effort but eventually people can be retrained and have their expectations reset.
I mean, what if you never called her to find out if or why she was mad at you? What would she do? What if you decided not to worry about what you may have done wrong? What if you didn’t participate in the “airing of the grievances” and just treated her like everything is fine and if there is something she is upset about she can use her fucking words and tell you what that is, but until then, you can’t care about it?
Your email subject line was “I think my mom might be gaslighting me by accident.” If this is all about your own anxiety and need for approval and not something she’s doing, or if it is “by accident”… this would be one way to find out.
5. Keep it light. When you do speak, don’t talk about serious things – she isn’t safe. Talk about TV. Talk about extended family. Talk about the housepets and happy childhood memories. Ask her how she is doing. When she is nice and pleasant to you, be nice and pleasant to her. At the first turn to serious topics, and especially at the first “I’m very disappointed in you because ________” say “So sorry to hear that, I have to go. Goodnight!”
Also, consider switching up your method of communication. Is she terrible on the phone? Send notecards in the mail or use email. Is she terrible in writing when she’s had time to really think it through? Use the phone.
6. Develop mantras. When she tries to tell you what to do, or says something mean, or gives you inappropriate advice, one of the best things you can say is “Thanks Mom, I’ll think about it.”
You WILL think about it. And then you’ll do whatever the hell you want to do. But saying “Thanks, I’ll think about it” instead of “You’re wrong!” robs your mom of the extended argument (and bullying opportunity) she is used to having. It seems counter-intuitive and like you’re not standing up for yourself, but really you are throwing off her game and giving yourself space to hang back choose your battles.
This is another case where the “I’m sorry that you feel that way” non-apology is totally valid. Use it all the time.
7. Build Team You. You’re already got a therapist, so you’re one step ahead. Put some love into your friendships; you’re going to need those people. Volunteer somewhere, if you can. You’re going to need a place where you feel like you have your shit together and are helping people. Reach out to other people in your family – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – and build stronger relationships with them. Find people who like you as you are and who don’t make you do humiliating shame dances to win their approval.
Carve out safe spaces where you can be truly yourself, and don’t invite her into them until she shows that she can behave.
8. Brace yourself.
Let me be blunt: Getting distance and limiting contact are power plays as much as the silent treatment is, so it will feel really extreme and crappy and like you are overreacting and being a bad person. There will be guilt. SO MUCH GUILT. This is because you are nice and reasonable and you want to see the good in people and treat them as you would like to be treated. And she will not go quietly. “But I’m your moooooooootherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….”
Get ready for your dad to re-emerge. He sounds pretty passive about this whole thing, but if you’re not around so much, he’s going to get the brunt of her disapproval. So get ready for him to pressure you to just do what she wants, you know she loves you, she doesn’t mean to be the way she is, it’s not her fault, you know how she is, why do you have to make things so difficult? I wish I were kidding about this, but I’m not. You’ll expect an ally in him because he’s been where you’ve been with her, but prepare for the possibility that he’ll be her ally in trying to get you to fall into line to get her off his nuts.
What you will be doing is resetting the way the relationship works and putting your mom in the position where, if she wants a relationship with you, she has to treat you better. You will be showing your mom that you can live just fine with her disapproval, but you won’t tolerate her being mean to you.
I’ve quoted this here before, but it has so much bearing in your situation I’ll throw it in again. From Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign:
“Nothing is more guaranteed to make one start acting like a child than to be treated like one…It took me the longest time to figure out how to stop falling into that trap.”
“Yes, exactly,” Kareen agreed eagerly. “You understand! So–how did you make them stop?”
“You can’t make them–whoever your particular them is–do anything, really,” said Ekaterin slowly. “Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste…years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No, you have to just…take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that, and walk away. But it’s hard.”
It is hard, Sound of Silence, but you’re doing all the right stuff by seeking therapy and connecting some of these dots for why you feel the way you do. Keep going with that.