After making a poor decision has your child ever answered one of your questions with the infamous, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t remember”? Or how about one of my favorites, “I didn’t hear you!”? These phrases get under our skin so much because we know that our child heard us, and we know that they understand what they’ve done is wrong. However, they are making it clear in a very non-confrontational and passive way that they are really not interested in hearing what we have to say on the matter. Welcome to the world of stonewalling!
The term became famous after Drs. John and Julie Gottman utilized it in working with couples while creating the Gottman Method. Essentially, stonewalling is exactly what the metaphor implies. It is one person building a relational and communicational wall or barrier against another in order to “keep them out” and inevitably “shut them down” from further conversation. It happens to all of us at one point or another, so each of us know the pain and frustration associated from being treated this way. Today, I’d like to focus on what stonewalling looks like in the parent-child relationship. Stonewalling as a Defense vs. Stonewalling as a Necessity Stonewalling is a natural response to a perceived threat. Sometimes the threat is real, and sometimes it isn’t. And it’s up to us as parents to help our kids figure this out. We need to identify when they’re stonewalling and let them know. We want them to think about and analyze their own behavior, versus allowing their emotions and feelings to run their day. If you figure out that your kid is stonewalling out of necessity you might say something along the lines of, “I know it makes you uncomfortable when I ask you about this, but what I really want you to know is that I love you and if or when you want to talk about it, I’ll be here.” If your kiddo is stonewalling out of defensiveness you can say something like, “I know this is going to be hard to talk about, but I’m here to tell you I’m not going to let this go. You are going to need to communicate to me in some form or fashion about what’s happened, and if you choose not to communicate, you are choosing for me to come up with even more consequences for your behavior.” There will be times when we must ease our children out of a defensive stonewalling position so that encouragement, training, and discipline can take place. But there will also be times when your child’s stonewalling is an emotional necessity that is actually them trying to create healthy boundaries between themselves and you. Creating healthy boundaries is key to healthy, mature, long-lasting relationships. For instance, when my daughter was 4 years old, she began to openly refuse to tell me how her day had gone. I would pick her up from pre-school and ask, “How was your day?”. Her typical response would be to tell me how so and so had acted at lunch, what they’d eaten for snack that day, and what kind of craft they’d made. Your quintessential 4-year-old highlights. But one day she responded with, “I don’t want to tell you.” My first thought was that she’d somehow gotten into trouble and was ashamed to talk about it. But after checking with the daycare, and a couple more days of the same response, it became evident that my daughter simply just didn’t want to share how her day had been. My eyes were opened further while talking to friends of ours at dinner one evening. My friend said, “Maybe she just wants her day to be her day. I can remember feeling that way as a kid.” And so armed with this new information I backed off, and you know what, my daughter eventually came back around and started sharing her day with me again. Telling the difference between stonewalling as a necessity and stonewalling as a defense can be tricky, and as a parent myself I always lean toward backing off when my child is stonewalling so that no lasting damage is done to the relationship. It’s also my attempt to instill some trust and faith that if and when my child is ready to let their guard down, they will. This approach eliminates me from exhausting my child by trying to break down the walls they’ve built, and it allows them to keep their problems as their problems, which builds confidence and responsibility on their part. However, there are times when our kids’ stonewalling is actually a very adept defense against facing the music from some seriously bad decisions they have made. These often include character issues that need to be laid bare so that discipline and training can take place. This is uncomfortable, particularly for the person who’s being laid bare. Some moderate examples of this would include poor character decisions like lying, being disrespectful, or being lazy. Some extreme examples would be evidence of potentially criminal behavior like cheating, stealing, and being abusive towards another person. For instance, if your teenager was caught stealing from Wal-Mart and their response is, “I don’t remember,” or “I don’t know”, they are simply trying to cover for their very poor decisions and their stonewalling is an attempt to shut down any corrective actions or emotions. In these instances, it’s time to put our big boy, or big girl, pants on and wade into our child’s poor decision and not back down until we have the information we need to make a solid decision about how discipline is going to happen given the circumstances. The key is to teach our children that talking about how they’re feeling or why they did what they did is helpful to their own self-discovery. It’s not okay to go through life not knowing why we do what we do. We want to understand ourselves so that we can grow. Sometimes growth happens when the parent backs off, and sometimes it happens when the parent engages. The circumstances determine when and how this will happen, and the outcome is our child grows, learns about themselves, and inevitably will be able to look back and see that the situation was handled with love, care, and forethought by mom and dad. Defensive stonewalling impedes our growth because it effectively shuts down caring relationships and healthy emotions that would otherwise spur us on toward being better. Parent relationships that focus on balancing grace and solid character expectations for their children will help to foster conversations and call out defensive stonewalling for the dysfunctional mess that it is.