What Their Silence Means

SilenceDo you prefer listening to reading? We have an audio treatment of this subject in Reconnection Club Podcast Episode #20: What Your Child’s Silence Really Means. Listen now.

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You’ve probably experienced the pain and frustration of sending a thoughtful and heartfelt message to your child, only to receive no reply. Repeated exposure to this can wear you down.

Some parents give up, at least temporarily, to avoid another bout of no-response. But it’s not just the silence that hurts; it’s the interpretation of what it means that makes it intolerable over time.

This month I’ll offer a few thoughts on some of the processes potentially going on behind that wall of silence. It just might not be as personal as you think.

Interpreting Silence

It’s a cycle.

You feel a wave of love and understanding toward your child. You feel strong enough to give without taking. So you reach out.

It might be a little gift (try to avoid this), a note in the mail, or a brief voicemail. You figure, “I know s/he won’t respond, and that’s okay.”

But then one day turns into two. Two days turns into three, and then it’s been a week without a response. Even though you’ve tried not to expect anything, you can’t help but feel rejected.

The hurt may be dull or piercing, constant or intermittent. Maybe it compels you to try again. And again. But eventually you have to take a step back.

You retreat and nurse your wounds for a while.

In the course of time, you reclaim yourself; you begin to feel stronger. You’re ready to try again…

And the cycle repeats.

But maybe the silence itself doesn’t have to hurt quite so much. Maybe the cycle can be converted into a steady, less painful campaign that’s part of the natural rhythm of life.

What Does No Reply Really Mean?

Silence hurts because of what it seems to imply. It feels like it means something like:

  • “I hate you.”
  • “You’re not worth a reply.”
  • “I don’t want to hear from you anymore.”
  • “You mean nothing to me.”
  • “I’m never going to talk to you again.”

With interpretations like that, it’s no wonder silence is so darn painful.

But those are just that: Interpretations. They’re not facts. Your child’s lack of response might mean something totally different.

Here are five other ways to interpret that silence.

1. “I need some space right now.”

Some adult children find it hard to ask for space directly. Others feel they’ve already done so more than once. Both types may turn to silence to get the message across.

Needing space from someone doesn’t mean you hate them, or that they don’t matter to you. It means that for some reason, you simply need space and/or time to be a separate entity.

With young or recently-launched adults, the space is usually needed for individuation. It’s a natural developmental process that needn’t be taken personally.

If it’s clear your child wants space, the best thing you can do for your future relationship is to tolerate missing them right now. The fact that time is ticking away is a cruel fact of life. It doesn’t change what works.

2. “I’m ambivalent about getting close.”

If you sometimes get a response and sometimes not, ambivalence is likely at play.

Ambivalence is characterized by loving and needing someone on the one hand, and yet also wanting to keep a certain amount of distance on the other. For more on ambivalence, listen to Reconnection Club Podcast Ep. 171: Understanding Ambivalence.

Ambivalence is easier to understand and forgive than dismissiveness or antipathy. In my experience, it might also be more common.

The antidote to ambivalence is freedom. Make it easy for your child to be close by letting them control the frequency and depth of contact. Resist the temptation to extend or multiply any contact they initiate. Don’t fall into the Escalation Trap.

Treat an ambivalent adult child as you would a deer that wanders into your yard. Let them come to you on their own terms, and enjoy them while they’re there.

3. “I don’t know how to respond.”

I once spent considerable time crafting what I thought was a very nice email, and got no response. I was miffed. Fortunately, someone who knew the recipient told me she’d been “blown away” by the email and felt incapable of responding at the same level. She thought anything she had to say in response would be “lame by comparison,” so she didn’t respond at all.

Given that you might be communicating a little differently than expected since joining the Reconnection Club … AND given that your child is The Child and you The Parent in the relationship… your child may think, ‘I have no idea how to respond to this. Fortunately, I don’t have to.’

If you offer your child a voicemail or note that you know is wonderful, don’t be put off as I was by not getting a reply. Understand that it’s not easy to respond to wonderfulness even in an untroubled relationship, let alone one in which there’s already estrangement.

4. “I’m busy.”

Especially if they sense you have a strong need for connection, silence may be an adult child’s way of indicating that they can’t give as much time and energy as you can to your relationship.

Work, new relationships, and other responsibilities usually take precedence over connecting with parents in young and middle adulthood, no matter how healthy the relationship.

It’s not that they’re too busy to take 30 seconds to respond to your text. It’s that they’re hoping silence will convey that they’re too busy in general for frequent contact — even though they love you. From their point of view, anything but silence would reinforce unwanted behavior.

Don’t become an item on a To Do list. Give busy adults enough time to miss you.

5. “Is this for real?”

If you begin communicating with your child(ren) in a very different way, they may not know what to make of it. Even though they might genuinely like the new approach, how do they know it will last?

Estranged adult children don’t want to be lulled into a false sense of security, only to be disappointed when positive changes don’t stick. If they respond right away, they may get hooked into an interaction that feels disappointingly familiar. Fearing this bait-and-switch, they might feel safer taking a “wait and see” approach to new developments.

No matter what changes you make in the way you relate to them, trust requires consistency, and consistency takes time.

Silence is just another interval in the necessary passage of time. Try not to think of it as a waste. Maintain your course and remember that the only constant is change.

Don’t let yourself be hurt unnecessarily. Think twice before interpreting silence as one of those awful statements in the bulleted list above.

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This article was originally featured in our monthly newsletter, and later adapted for my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child.

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