The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ask Sahaj: I’m realizing my parents’ discipline was emotional abuse

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.

Dear Sahaj: My mom and dad are immigrants from Turkey. Their primary form of discipline when I was growing up was the silent treatment, where they wouldn’t acknowledge my existence for days, weeks, months at a time. My mother still uses this on me today, and I’m 35.

I’ve started to notice that it has a spiral effect, where I feel anxious and worthless, and only recently have I tied it to a feeling of being unlovable. I’m trying to heal from it, but I’m just beginning to realize that this silent treatment is actually emotional abuse. How can I work through this in a healthy way?

— Working through trauma

Working through trauma: This is no doubt an emotionally difficult time. You are reconciling different truths about your parents, your childhood and the effects of both of these at once.

First off, we should note that, in general, it is very common for parents to replicate the parenting styles they experienced. And more specifically, it can be very common, I have seen in my work, for immigrant parents to lack the resources or opportunities to learn conflict resolution or emotional regulation. As such, conflict can become so intolerable to them that they withdraw altogether to avoid the experience and their emotions.

Regardless of knowing where your parents may be coming from — and the possible intent (or lack thereof) behind the behavior — it doesn’t change the effect this silent treatment, also known as stonewalling, has clearly had on you.

Children are reliant on their caregivers to help them develop a secure sense of self, but when parents withdraw, they are also withdrawing their love — which leaves children feeling unlovable, at fault or unworthy. And these feelings can continue to affect their relationships in adulthood.

You’ve started noticing this, and going forward, it will be important to identify the feelings coming up for you and find evidence contrary to it. You may want to rely on other sources of support and love if and when you are feeling triggered to remind you that you are lovable and worthy. Or, you could develop a list of affirmations to turn to when negative thoughts creep in.

I would encourage you to go a few steps further by reflecting on how else this affects you. Do you feel triggered when someone takes a long time to respond to you? Do you find that you are conflict-avoidant with others? Do you struggle with trusting other loved ones?

Because it’s been a while and this dynamic still exists, it also may be time to consider doing something differently. Unlike in childhood, you now have resources and opportunities to protect yourself from your parents’ stonewalling. If you feel as if they are unaware and you are willing, you could try to communicate how their behaviors are affecting you. Facilitating a conversation with your parents may open their eyes to not only how they are treating you and making you feel, but also the cycles that have potentially existed in your family before you were born.

Alternatively, you may consider increasing the emotional or physical distance between you and them when they are stonewalling. By stepping away and taking your own space and time to take care of yourself, you might also give your parents space to manage their own emotions instead of directing them at you.

And lastly, because stonewalling can feel inexplicable and invisible, it’s important to recognize these experiences as real and valid. Healing from childhood trauma can be a long journey. Have self-compassion, and remember that you are worthy of love, respect and security.