The silent treatment snit

“I’ve read about toddlers throwing temper tantrums, do you have any advice on how to handle a toddler who refuses to talk to you? I picked my 2 1/2 year old up from preschool today and she wouldn’t look at me or talk to me. I tried talking to her a few times but then just gave up and drove home in silence. When I tried to get her out of the car she threw a temper tantrum. Once she finally calmed down I asked her why she wouldn’t talk, if something happened at school, etc. and she said nothing happened. This is not the first time she has refused to talk (she has done the same thing to her dad and grandma before but she seemed to be doing better lately). Is this normal behavior, and is it best to not try to talk to her when she behaves like this?”

A “silent treatment” is a kind of snit—a different species, perhaps, from a temper tantrum, but certainly a close relative. As with all snits, the only thing you ought to do during a toddler-aged snit itself is ignore. How you best deal with snits otherwise has more to do with what you do before and after the snit than what you do during the snit itself.

During the before-snit, ask yourself these kinds of questions: is your child otherwise developmentally normal, with normal speech skills? Socially, is she doing well in school? Does she like it? Are there other behaviors going on that have created big problems? Is her life otherwise free of serious stresses—marital discord, or other family strife or changes—that might be keeping her on edge? If the answers to all of these questions are “yes”, than you’re dealing with an essentially normal behavior that is very unlikely to persist or turn into anything serious. But if some of these “red flags” are present, you ought to speak directly with your pediatrician for more specific advice.

You should also make sure there is ample time for good communication with your daughter. Talking with her in the car just doesn’t count—you’re not really paying attention to her, you’re driving. You ought to set aside time every day to talk, showing with body language that you’re interested and listening. Don’t rush her, and don’t take charge of the conversation. Let her talk about what’s on her mind without a lot of pointed questions. It sounds like right after school might not be the best time for you to do this. She may need some time to unwind.

To help understand what might be going on in school, you’ll probably have to be less direct. You can certainly talk with her teachers and other parents of kids in her class. Also, spend some time doing informal “play therapy” where you act out going-to-school scenes with her stuffed animals and other pretend things. You’ll learn more about her schoolday by having her help act out “Mr. Spoon goes to school” than by asking her what happened.

During the after-snit (when she’s started talking again) I don’t suggest you ask her any sort of “why” questions, or even directly talk about what happened. This is the time, like after a temper tantrum, for hugs, reassurance, and acceptance. Say, “I’m glad you’re starting to feel better.”

So, as with temper tantrums, the general approach is:

  • Before: Try to prevent or avoid snits by understanding the cause, if you can. Not all snits can be avoided, but some can.
  • During: Ignore.
  • After: Hug, reassure, and love.

Snits of one kind or another are unavoidable, and a necessary part of how toddlers grow. They cannot communicate well, and get easily frustrated. Though every toddler is going to have occaisional snits, how parents deal with them can help make them less frequent and less intense—and maybe, eventually, help them disappear for good.

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