Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

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The Surprising Truth About The Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is a way to inflict pain without visible bruising – literally.

Research has shown that the act of ignoring or excluding activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain.

The best predictor of divorce isn’t whether a couple fights – arguments are inevitable – but how a couple fights. The key to being closer in the good times lies in the way a couple treats each other during the bad.

The silent treatment can tend to present itself as a response more fitting of the ‘high road’, one of grace and dignity, but research has shown it is anything but.

Kipling Williams, a Professor of Psychology at Purdue University who has studied ostracism for twenty years, explains, ‘Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.’

The ability to detect ostracism is hardwired in us – it doesn’t matter if you’re being ignored by a group or a person you can’t stand, the pain still registers.

The silent treatment, even if it’s brief, activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies.

The silent treatment happens when one partner pressures the other with requests, criticism or complaints and the other responds with silence and emotional distance.

Paul Schrodt, PhD, Professor of Communication Studies reviewed 74 relationship studies which involved more than 14,000 participants.

Findings from his in-depth analysis revealed that the silent treatment is ‘tremendously’ damaging to a relationship. It decreases relationship satisfaction for both partners, diminishes feelings of intimacy, and reduces the capacity to communicate in a way that’s healthy and meaningful.

‘It’s the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship,’ says Schrodt. ‘And it does tremendous damage.’

It’s an incredibly hard pattern to break because both partners lay the blame at the feet of the other.

‘Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,’ explains Schrodt. ‘Both partners see the other as the problem.’ One partner will typically complain that the other is emotionally unavailable. The other will accuse his or her partner of being too demanding or critical.

When couples become locked in this ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern, the damage can be both emotional and physiological include anxiety and aggression as well as erectile dysfunction and urinary and bowel problems.

It doesn’t matter which partner demands or which one withdraws, the damage to the relationship is the same. It’s the pattern itself that’s the problem, not the specific partner. 

The silent treatment should not be confused with taking time to cool down after heated or difficult exchange. Williams suggests that instead of reverting to the silent treatment, try ‘I can’t talk to you right now, but we can talk about it later.’

Nobody engages the silent treatment expecting it to damage the relationship, and that’s the danger.

Generally, it’s called on as the weapon of choice because it’s powerful and it’s easy to get away with. There is nothing subtle about a physical or verbal lashing, but an accusation of the silent treatment, ‘Are you ignoring me?’ can easily be denied.

Silence can feel like a dignified, high road response but it’s not. It’s a way to inflict pain but without the physical marks. 

Being noticed is so close to being loved, that sometimes they feel the same.

Being ignored is just as powerful.

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356 Comments

Brittany S

I have got into reading these forms late at night. See, I was in a long term relationship with a man I started dating in my early 20s and grew to adore. We lived together for almost 3 years and moved between two provinces. Interestingly, enough our love story shattered when he had to move 5500km away for a 12 month workterm and I was forced to stay for a job/promotional opportunity.

We began distance in June of 2017 and was was optimistic as I loved the guy more than anything in the world. From June to October we met up twice totalling 4 weeks to travel and explore. However, as late October rolled around my love one began to ignore my phone calls and messages. I don’t believe I was ever a nag but since I work from home and have no coworkers I often feel isolated so relied on living with my man (who has an abundance of coworkers) to support and socially stimulate me.

We are now here in May and I consider myself single but I remain in denial about the entire falling out of our relationship as I struggle to comprehend the consecutive days and weekends I expirenced of unanswered phone calls and text messages.

I am not here looking for advice. Instead. I wanted to put my hand up as say that I have felt the most devastating riff as a young loving 25 year old girl. Never in my life did I imagine the person I devoted my life to for almost 5 years and who I had future plans with would ignore me.

Until today I fight daily mental battles, I lack motivation, can’t focus, am stressed, and lose a lot of sleep simply because one, just one of the billions of human beings on this earth decided to ignore me when I needed him most.

I truly hope no one ever has to endure this pain and I also hope those who do find the courage to cut their losses instead of remaining sporadically devastated by the haunting flashbacks of the ignorance!

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Etta

Hello. I m aware you said that you didn’t ask for advice, yet I felt compelled to respond because it’s almost like you were writing about me.
I wondered about my emotional response to being ignored, especially since my guy and I haven’t been together even half as long as you guys have.
Yet Im feeling exactly as you, and then some. Some are saying to me that I should forget him, but I can’t.
Why? Because after all is said and done, there has to be something there to make him go through all the effort of ignoring me. Actions, whether positive or negative, takes effort. And effort indicates meaning.
Sooo, what does his effort of ignoring me/us or giving us the silent treatment mean? I haven’t the slightest idea.
I do know one thing though. And that is last month I hurt him, deeply. Yes I apologized, more than once, yet he probably, might still be deeply hurt. I dont know.
One thing Im adamantly sure of though, and that is Im NOT giving up on him. Oh Im aware, very aware, that that attitude isnt popular. Yet I think outside the box anyway, always have and so refuse to give up!!

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Olivia

I feel sorry for what you’re experiencing. Same thing happened to me and imagine that I was 16 at that time, it was a long-distance relationship and what you wrote touched me deeply and reminded me of the pain I felt. I just want you to know its not only you there are people out there who have been through the same and I overcame it by realizing how much he made me feel bad about myself with this treatment i thought i did something wrong or something, but after realizing that he was a bad person for this thing I decided to stop caring and going out to have fun with my friends specially knowing that he’s out there having fun not caring for me so why am I here depressed about someone who doesn’t care for me? I loved and adored him way too much and when you wrote i devoted my life for him I felt that. as what I said go out girl and have fun, get with people who appreciate your worth and make yourself in your life number 1 priority, I’m still working on that too.

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Megan

I am so sorry you are dealing with this. I too experience the flashbacks. Not only of the good times, but things I could have done differently to save my engagement and future. Hopefully you are doing better now. Sending support.

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Matt

I was so touched by what you wrote. I can’t offer advice as have been in a similar position – I was in a 5 year relationship with a guy who was ashamed of being gay – and one day just vanished. Months of unanswered anguished reach out calls from me went unanswered and then even occasional texts over the next few years until I gave up. Only people who have encountered situations like ours can understand the mental back and forth questioning as to why. Clearly, anyine who behaves that way has the problem, not us – but the memory of happoness and being a loving person means we stay trapped. But the only way is to try to forget they are even still alive and, as difficult as it is for us empathetic types, to NOT forgive, if that makes you sentimental about them, because that feeling could not be returned if they are capable of silence. Hoping you find someone else soon who deserves your love and you can confine your ex to a file in your heart that gets smaller and smaller and is forgotten about in time.

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Black Goddess

Brittany S

How do you know if he not dead, or got into an accident, or lost his phone/contact number. Have tried contacting his family?

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Kim

I think it’s worth mentioning, the “cold shoulder torture treatment” is applicable in more than just romantic relationships. Specifically, it also packs quite a punch in the parent/adult child relationship as well.
Believe me, I know.
And not exactly bragging, either.

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Britt

Mental and emotional abuse isn’t something to joke about. My third bf, and the one I should have married, was near perfect. But coming from jerks, I only knew how to react and defend against myself instead of how to work with someone. I only knew how to give up and be silent and afraid to speak my mind, and how to give the silent treatment and say mean things to get them to leave me alone. It’s what was done to me, so it’s all I knew. I learned all of my hardest relationship lessons from him about myself and what I lacked in offering to another after letting the first two make me slightly bitter and callous. He was kind, attentive, consoled me when I needed it, encouraging and supportive, trusting, and so much more. And I destroyed it all unintentionally simply because I didn’t know how to receive a love like that. Fast forward to my current, and I feel like I’m back in my early twenties: stupid, naive, naggy, clingy, annoying…..and all the other things I’m truly not deep down inside but have become again. The only difference this time is that I’ve done the soul searching I needed. I accepted what I did wrong and have been approaching things differently and in a more positive and healthy way. I listen better, I dont shut down anymore, and I’m an open book. I’m inviting, reassuring, caring, and so much more. But it doesnt work when you’re with someone who isn’t consistent and is too cowardly to open up about what he wants. I ask about what the future looks like for him and what we are working toward (AFTER HE ASKS ME TO MOVE IN) and all he can say is “idk. We will see what happens.” He tells me he is doing something with friends after work, I say okay and let him do his thing. He plays video games for 5hrs+ every single night and I go to bed alone, I say nothing-just kiss him goodnight and tell him I love him, even though I feel distant and undesirable. When he gets distant, I give him his space and then ask what’s going on when he comes to me, but he always thinks I’m keeping tabs or trying to control him and I literally do none of those things. He says I’m a cloud of misery because I gave up trying and just wait for him. Everything I do revolves around him and his time frame, he never puts extra effort in for me. Tells me no one will love me because I’m needy. Hell yeah I’m needy! I NEED YOU to prioritize me just a fucking little bit! I need you to make a move first every so often. I NEED you to do things that reflect that you care for me and this relationship. But when I tell him, “hey babe I need some reassurance” his response is, “well you’re not going to get it like this.” If I’m crying, he hangs up on me and says I’m bringing him down when all I am trying to do is talk to him. But his insistence that what I have to say isn’t important and that he doesn’t have time for it is what makes me cry….and then suddenly he doesnt want to deal with it! No matter what I do, I can never win. He tells me what he needs, I do it….then it changes the next go around. And all I have ever needed is for him to be open and honest with me, but I’m always made out to be annoying or a bitch just from checking in with him to ask how he is doing or feeling. I cant even express that I feel he has been distant without him saying I am creating problems in my head and that I’m stupid if I think otherwise. And it NEVER started off this way. Somewhere along the line he just stopped caring but is too cowardly to leave. Just keeps saying if he wanted to break up with me he would. But he definitely isn’t there for me when I need him, which by the way is hardly ever because I’m so used to just rolling over and doing whatever he needs. He thinks he spends every day with me simply because I sit there for hours every night and watch him play video games. He never asks me what I want to do, never takes me out randomly as a kind gesture. I take care of him when he is injured or hurt, and the second he is feeling better he thinks I’m too overbearing. What? Seriously, fucking what? Fathers day rolls around, and my dad that died a year and a half prior was brought up once by me. All I did was say the night before a holiday or birthday is always so anxious and painful because I cant stop the holiday from happening without him here, and that I just needed him to understand when I’m sad for a moment, that it’ll pass and I’m just thinking about him. His response? “Well I’m a father too, and if you’re going to be sad and bring me down on my day, then maybe you should find something else to do.” What the actual fuck? It happens out of nowhere, but then they apologize and tell you it’s your fault. That if you did this differently or better, it would be different. But then you do that, and it still isnt because they are never happy. And then they project it onto you! It’s a neverending, miserable cycle because the only person they truly give a shit about is NOT you. And trust me, you’ll be the only one in pain or upset about anything. And guess who wont be there to listen to you or to work it out with you? You guessed it. And out of nowhere, you suddenly believe you’re not good enough. That you have nothing to offer to anyone. That you are indeed a miserable person, when really, he is just rude and insensitive to my needs. He has no time showing me off to everyone as his pretty girlfriend, but god forbid he have any responsibilities of a boyfriend, let alone a decent human being.

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Sunflower

You literally just described my boyfriend (ex… who the fuck even knows because I’m getting the silent treament)

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Jo

I’ve been dating this guy for four months. Initially he was so lovely, he’s very generous and was really loving. However for the last month or so I’ve been feeling so anxious and insecure I’ve lost weight.
It started with put downs, calling me thick and dim. He did it in front of his friends the other day and I retaliated, he didn’t like it to say the least!
He has become cold and distant , never says he loves me anymore and something in me tells me he’s playing games. He used to answer my messages quickly but the other day left it hours. Whenever I try to address things with him such as how hurt I feel when he puts me down he plays the victim. He stormed off and slept on the sofa one time which ended with me apologising!! It’s alwats me who apologised and feels like I have to chase him suddenly.
Everything is always about him. If I say I’ve had no sleep I’m shattered he will tell me how he’s gonna have a nice easy day, have a lie in and watch TV when he knows I’m working a full day. He would never respond with empathy and say poor thing babe hope you feel better later.
He’s just been made redundant and has a few job offers and is considering one 300 miles away. It upset me to think he would go so far, but again it’s all about him. I’m constantly supporting him because there is always something going on , my feeling never seem to matter it’s almost like I don’t exist as a person.
I noticed early on if I didn’t text him regularly enough or put enough in the text he’d get funny about it. He actually gave me the silent treatment once even though I explained I couldn’t talk at the time.
Just realised he’s a total narcissist and it’s a relief to know I’m not all to blame here.

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B

Most messages I read here are really me me me. You people are so emotionally experienced, yet haven’t come up with the idea that the other person needs things too. It’s a tango after all, he can’t woo you all the time, he needs water breaks, toilet breaks, talking with other people, snack time, jokes and laughter, different mindsets, holiday outings… adventure! Believe it or not, but this is exactly what you need too, even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes(sometimes people don’t know what they really need). If you build your social life around him, it will definitely impact your relationship. You shouldn’t have to lean on him for any part of life, as he doesn’t need to drag you through anything. He’s not your door into a happy life, you are. He’s just there to party along for the ride.

If he offers more, than that’s great, but it’s what he wants to offer, not what he’s expected to. You can’t really be glad with things you expect, can you? If you stop expecting stuff, you will have more appreciation for the continuous development of your relationship.

Own life. Take care of yourself. Then open the door.

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Elleke

I have dealt with the silent treatment in one form or another for my whole life. Fortunately, I have come to manage it in a healthy way. I was married to a man for many years who dealt with conflict or disagreeable situations by giving me the silent treatment. It eroded our marriage. To this day, he has no idea of the long-term effectst that his behavior caused. He is also passive-aggressive and has no clue about that either. He had an emotionally difficult childhood. So maybe it is a bit understandable. But he did engage in this behavior deliberately to control and to hurt. He didn’t care because he got what he wanted. He also got divorced, which he never expected.
My sister and brother also give people the silent treatment. My sister didn’t speak to me for over 10 years. When she did come around after the death of my daughter, she expected to pick up where we left off; even though we speak now and socialize together, I will never trust her again. She told me she loved to ignore people when they did something wrong because it drove them crazy. (Deliberate and cruel.) At the time she told me this, I had spent a lot of years recovering from my marriage and I had developed some coping behavior (I don’t let others intimidate me; I also take into account that the problem is theirs, not mine. If they want to drive me “crazy” it doesn’t work any more. I still treat them the same way I always have. Their behavior becomes obvious to others that they care about. Those others put the responsibility for the situation back on them, that is, unless they are busy ignoring someone. I take responsibility for my own behavior and always say I’m willing to talk. It becomes obvious they are not willing to resolve the issue. This was hard work but it was worth it because it helped me let go. If they don’t love me enough to work on a relationship, then I have to let go.) I asked my sister if she wanted to hurt someone or resolve an issue. Never got an answer.
My brother isn’t speaking to me either. I send him Christmas cards with letters and an occasional email when there is family business that concerns him. No response but he knows that I’m not suffering.
There were a couple years when I distanced myself from my birth family (I spent that time analyzing the dysfunctional dynamic of our family.) I didn’t do the ignoring for punishment or to hurt them. Prior to my decision to distance myself, I had been trying to resolve some family issues around the boundaries I had established for my children, which were constantly ignored. No one would listen or heed because they were sure that their behavior meant they loved my children and I was just being ornery. After an emotional climax, I cut them off for a couple years. When they were let back in, they acknowledged my viewpoint and worked to honor my boundaries. I ignored them because I didn’t want to hurt anymore. After that when their behavior was designed to “reign me in,” I usually would leave a gathering or just not respond to their behavior. It was a lot of trouble for me. I don’t know now if I would do the work it required to keep things on balance. In the end, it made a difference about some things, but overall their mindset remained.

I would say that most people who engage in the silent treatment never learn anything different.(I notice that one of the commenters did learn something different; I applaud her for her discernment.) It is hard to resolve a problem if the other person is unwilling to make an effort.

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Violet

I have been dealing with this Silent treatment for over 30 years and it is just as painful now as it was the first time. I love my family and I do not want a divorce , I have tried everything I know so I have finally given up.
My husband have used this form of abuse for weeks even months at a time. He never once apologized to me in our 32 years together. I am finally taking responsibility for my feelings and have emotional pulled out of the marriage, not sure where to go from here, but I cannot go back there nothing to go back for it is a dead black hole . Any advice will be welcomed. Please keep me in all your prayers that my strength will not fail me.

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Lynn

Hi Violet. I know what you are going through. I did it too for 17 years. I didn’t want to break up my family either but the damage to my self esteem was tremendous. I too made a decision to not have any expectations emotionally but it takes a toll as it doesn’t come naturally to us like it does to them.
My children who are now 16 and 18 understood what was going on and supported me. He finally agreed to leave our house, probably because (as I found out much later) he was planting the seeds of relationship with a younger woman at work. It makes me very angry and I have flashbacks to those many times of frustration and sadness. The children do not miss their father too much, although he is a good father, and they can see him whenever they want. They did not want me to stay in such an unhealthy relarionship. I am sure your family want to see you happy as well.
I know after 17 years that I had become almost as mute as him. I was unable to express myself even as the words were running through my head. I had been ‘trained’ to keep quiet like a dog controlled by an electric fence. Everytime I had tried to talk to him I had been ‘zapped’ – insulted and ignored. There was no physical or emotional intimacy in my marriage and I was blamed for that. This last year with him gone has not been easy because I am struggling with my confidence, and even who I am outside of the psychological battlefield that was my marriage. I am hurt knowing that he does not care about me and probably never did, that he presents himself as normal caring person who tells his new girlfriend that we “grew apart,” and that he smiles when he knows that I am hurt.
All of this I have to leave in the past and get on with my life in the best way that I can. I am not in a postion to say you should stay or leave, or ask him to leave. I can say that nothing is worse than being with someone who tries to tear you down rather than build you up.

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Ellen P

I’m going through this as we speak. Me and my boyfriend are at a wedding and because I wasn’t paying attention to him about some baseball game he decides to ignore me and told me he’s done talking to me. All over a freaking baseball game. I told him not to fight because we’re at a wedding. Nope didn’t want any of it. Completely ignoring me and embarrassing me. I want to leave the wedding and drive the 45 minutes home but I know he’ll be mad at me for leaving him stranded. We’ve been together for 10 years and we’re not married. I don’t know what to do anymore. He tells me to my face he doesn’t want to marry me. I feel so used and emotionally and mentally abused by him.

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Sandra

my guy is giving me the silent treatment as he is on a journey of trying to sober up to be in his son”s life after 10yrs. no contact but child support. it’s a very difficult situation and hard pressed He is a functioning alcoholic. I have spent thousands of dollars on gifts for him,family, his home and his aches and pains.Only to feel like a fool. on occassion I have gone out drinking and then texting him drunk because of his indifference to him being emotionally unavailable. I love him.I’m in a bad place. He is younger than I which has been a problem even though and I am financially secure. There’s so much more. I think I’m losing my mind.

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Lisa

My husband of 33 years has raging anger over small things (I didn’t recycle something correctly and I asked if a gardening hose was hooked up) and after he explodes verbally, he practices the silent treatment towards me for a few days. It’s exhausting a hurtful. These behaviors have intensified after a TBI almost three years ago. He went through a year of neuropsych therapy which helped but the strange behaviors are creeping back again. I know I need to contact a therapist but I’m hoping things turn around before I do.

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Lucy

I’m getting towards the end of 24 years together. I can’t stand the weeks on end of silent treatment anymore. Always over something pathetically stupid. Of his making. In all these years the silence has always been broken by me. This time I’ve had enough 😢😢😢

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Blessi

It must be hard for you to deal with the pain. I can feel it too since I’ve gone through emotional abuse twice giving me trust issue everytime someone approaches me. First is my ex boyfriend (also my first) cheated on me several times when we were together for two years but atlast I manage to break up and let go of him. After that I couldn’t be with another man for a while and then I met with my current boyfriend, he seems quite a nice guy he tries to heal those pains and I also told him about my experience we got closer and got into relationship, but after 6 months of our relationship he gave me a silent treatment at first I thought he would eventually cool down and we would work it out ( of course we didn’t fight) but it lasted for about 4 months and I contacted him trying to get us together then we were together again for 8 months now but whenever we are in the relationship I would always be the one to apologise just to avoid his silent treatment even though I didn’t do anything wrong. Again this time he gave me the silent treatment I called him and texted him but didn’t get any response it’s been 3 days. I really want to know if he wanna break up with me I want to talk it through even if we were to break up I just don’t want to be confused like this. Please give me any suggestions as to where I did wrong.

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Kim C

I have been looking after my grandson in the school holidays since he was three. He is an only child and his parents do not discipline him enough. His father wants to be his best friend. Upon arriving at my house he would sit down with his bag of puzzles and games and expect me to start playing with him immediately, which I would. Then about two years ago or so I started backing off. I’d play a game and then say “Grandma needs to do some work, so you can play on your own for a while.” He reacted to this and then started giving both my husband and I the silent treatment. He is now seven and from what I have found during my research is that his actions are very deliberate. He is sullen, doesn’t talk and trying to engage him in conversation is like drawing teeth. His mother used to pack him up with a bag of food and drinks which made him self sufficient. I realized he didn’t need to communicate with me at all and obviously didn’t want to. About a year ago I asked his mother to not bring the food, trying to draw him out. It worked only minimally and then the food appeared again. This week his mother didn’t bring food for him and when he realized he gave me the cold shoulder altogether and resisted any form of enticement to eat or engage. I am at the end of my tether as to how to handle the situation. Whenever I have mentioned this behavior to his Mother, she says “he must be tired” or some excuse. I would welcome some advice.

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Karen Young

I can hear how upsetting this is for you. The thing to keep in mind is that kids only do what they do when they feel that there is no other way to get what they need, whether that’s because of exhaustion, where they are at developmentally, because they know there is something they need but they don’t know how to put it into words. There are so many reasons. The needs are always valid, but sometimes the way kids go about getting them can be messy. It can be like that for any of us – none of us are perfect when it comes to getting what we need effectively. It sounds as though this is about you playing with him, but it may be driven by a need for attention, it may be because he is missing his parents, it may be a need to feel closer to you – we can only speculate, but all of those needs are valid. Try naming what you see – ‘It sounds as though you might be upset with me. I’m wondering if there is something you need from me right now.’ Or, when you go to do jobs, try, ‘I need to go and do some jobs now, I’m wondering if you would like to help me. I really like spending time with you.’ The more he feels the connection with you, the less he will feel the need to act out in a way that isn’t working for both of you. He won’t always want you to play with him – their need to spend time with us starts to dissolve when they hit adolescence and they start to experiment with their independence. I completely understand how exhausting it can be playing the same thing over and over, but this may be more about him wanting to be close to you, feel connected to you, spend time with you. Make the most of this while you can. It’s so precious.

Reply

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