The question is one that plagues parents and therapists alike: What to do with kids who won’t talk—who can barely handle talking at all—who also hate all the questions they’re asked, in an attempt to get them to talk?

Should you keep badgering them until they say something? Or, do you leave them alone to sit in silence until they’re ready to say something, anything, at all?

In answering these questions, Michael R. Jackson, a therapist who specializes in adolescent psychology, said that for some young adults you should let them sit in silence, as they use periods of silence productively. For other youth, silence is not a good strategy. So, you should ask them questions.

Over the years, Jackson has come to the conclusion that while questioning may be painful to many teens, silence is often downright excruciating for them.

Jackson said that in his experience, older children generally fall into this latter category, meaning that silence is not good for them. But it can present a double-bind because they also hate to be questioned. And yet, over the years, Jackson has come to the conclusion that while questioning may be painful to many teens, silence is often downright excruciating for them.

If you’re looking for help with teenagers, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

Silence Is Painful for Teens

His first experience with this was in working with a 13-year-old girl who had been hospitalized with borderline personality features and possible early-onset schizophrenia. She had been acting increasingly depressed, erratic, and withdrawn—and had begun engaging in drug use and self-mutilation. She was barely verbal, responding to questions with one-word answers minimizing her problems, or with silence or shrugging.

“With my supervisor’s help,” Jackson said, “I began relying less on questions and more on spending time talking sympathetically to her about what her parents and the hospital staff had reported about her behavior. I made some guesses about how she must have been feeling at the time. Before long, she began to acknowledge some of these feelings, and eventually she started talking about other significant issues, including having frightening hallucinations and feeling stress about her father’s alcoholic behavior, which her parents had not revealed to the hospital staff.”

Jackson’s advice to therapists who work with young people—and for the parents who raise them—is to rarely let a silence last more than a minute or two without saying something, even if it’s just “Would you like to say anything about what’s going on?”

Rarely let a silence last more than a minute or two without saying something, even if it’s just “Would you like to say anything about what’s going on?

Young Children Are Okay with Silence

Interestingly, very young children often tolerate silence quite well in the context of play therapy. They are used to playing on their own and may feel comfortable with an adult in the room quietly accepting what they do and making only the occasional comment.

When they get older, however, children cross a certain threshold—typically around 8 years of age—when they start to become self-conscious about playing but are not yet accustomed to talking with adults, especially about personal issues. A few years after this—at, say, 14 or 15 years of age—they start to become sufficiently verbal to express themselves more easily and to tolerate some appropriate silence from therapists and parents.

“Looking back over the silences I have shared with my clients, both younger and older, I am struck by how full and how varied they have been—each with its own special meaning.”

What About Adults and Silence?

When it comes to adults, it should be noted that not all of them feel comfortable with therapists who are silent, especially adults who come from backgrounds in which it is not culturally normal to share personal information with an unknown professional. With these adults—and indeed with all adults—some preliminary assessment is usually advisable to determine how comfortable they are with a more exploratory approach in which silence may occur. If their comfort level in sharing personal details with someone they don’t know is low, then a more problem-solving approach is recommended. “Why make adults share when they don’t want to,” Jackson said. “It’s not good therapy for them.”

 

Looking back over the silences Jackson has shared with his clients, both younger and older, he has been struck by how full and how varied they have been—each with its own special meaning: anxiety, sadness, recalcitrance, closeness, and speechless perplexity, to name a few. Each one is different, and each can lead, potentially, to a greater understanding of the person.

“I’ve had breakthrough sessions when I gave the individual a significant period of attentive silence that no one else had ever offered them,” Jackson said. “But the rule of thumb in most cases is to avoid silence if at all possible, as it often makes people uncomfortable.”

If you’re looking for help with a teenager, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

References

“Working with Silence,” Michael R. Jackson, PhD. psychotherapy.net. April 1, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapy.net/blog/title/working-with-silence

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