The Dangers of Withholding Love

Posted by: Jo Banks

Date: 25-08-2016

When a person purposely ignores another on a consistent basis in order to punish them, the results can be devastating, especially in children… 


I’ve come across this particular type of psychological abuse many times over the years. Whilst victims can be of any age; it is a particularly damaging manipulation technique when used on children. 


Children need unconditional love in order to become fully functioning, well-adjusted adults.  We are wholly dependent on others as we grow.  We can’t fend for ourselves, so when a parent or primary caregiver threatens to, or removes their love by ignoring a child (albeit temporarily) on a consistent basis, it can trigger the primaeval/inherent fear of abandonment within the mind of the child.  Love, in these circumstances, is no longer unconditional.  It is conditional based on the adherence to the ‘rules’ created by the adult. 


The perceived threat of losing the love of a parent can have long-lasting psychological consequences, which often follow the child into adulthood and may never be resolved.  Adverse effects can include:


  • The child becoming a people pleaser, living their lives in order to please others, putting their needs last to gain acceptance and perceived love, in an attempt to avoid the threat of further abandonment
  • They can develop low self-esteem, feeling like they’re never quite good enough, making it difficult to build long-lasting adult relationships
  • Due to their need to please, they can become vulnerable to manipulation by others including narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths who purposely pursue victims with people pleasing traits


Let me be clear about what I mean by ‘withholding love’ when it comes to children.  I'm not referring to structured time out on the ‘naughty step’ for example.  This technique has been proven to work very efficiently when disciplining children.  That is, as long as the child is told very clearly what they did wrong, what is expected of them in future, that they are sorry and still feel loved afterwards.  Once the timeout has ended, everything goes back to normal, and the punishment is complete.


By withholding, I mean deliberately not talking/ignoring the child for hours or even days.  Or giving them ‘dirty looks’, leaving them in a different room for a prolonged period and not allowing them to talk, ‘taking to your bed’ (yes, this happens!) or disappearing for days on end in order to punish them and make them feel remorse for their behaviour.  No child should have to suffer to this type of psychological abuse, and yet it is often used as a regular punishment by many adults.


The perpetrators of this type of behaviour tend to have lower than average communication skills and be conflict averse.  They may even have modelled this behaviour from their parents/caregivers during childhood, making it a learnt behaviour. 


Of course, this type of control and manipulation isn't just directed at children.  I often work with adults who are subjected to this kind of punishment on a consistent basis by friends and family.  This passive aggressive manipulation technique is used to indicate displeasure to the victim in an attempt to control them.  As with the perpetrator, victims also tend to be conflict averse, they may also be people pleasers and are, therefore, unlikely to fight back or challenge their mistreatment.


This manipulation technique seldom works on people with strong personalities who have no problem challenging inappropriate behaviour.  The perpetrator may try it once, but when they don’t get the desired result i.e. gaining control, they rarely use it again. 


How to deal with this behaviour


The very best way to stop this behaviour is to stand up to the person.  If we always do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get the same result.  I realise that it can be difficult if you don't like conflict, but once you stand up to the person and let them know that the behaviour isn’t acceptable, it’s likely to stop.  If you find that you can't stand up the person and tell them to stop, then you have to do something different.


Here's a great example to illustrate how doing something different can end this behaviour.  I had one client (Andy) whose mother would take to her bed for days following a disagreement.  He told me that the family never argued.  If his mother didn’t like what was happening, she would withdraw and not speak to anyone – taking to her bed for days on end, refusing to talk to anyone.   His dad was quite weak and didn’t know how to deal with his mother during these phases.  He would, therefore, rely on his son to sort the problem out.  Even when Andy no longer lived in the family home, he would invariably end up apologising to his mother (even when he was not at fault) in order to restore peace and make his dad’s life more bearable.


This cycle had repeated for as long as Andy could remember.  Through his childhood and well into his thirties.  He only decided to take action when I pointed out that nothing was likely to change unless he reacted differently.  The next time his mother took to her bed and his father called him to sort it out, he refused and said that he wasn’t going round.  He received a number of calls from his dad over a couple of days, but stuck to his decision and refused to visit.  On day four, when his mother realised that her son wasn’t coming round, she got out of bed and continued as if nothing had happened. 


His mother tried the same behaviour a few months later, but again, my client refused to go to the house.  This time, she was out of bed within a matter of hours and has never repeated the cycle again.  She was no longer getting her desired result i.e. controlling her son, so there was no point in her continuing the behaviour! 


People will treat us the way we allow them to.  By not standing up to his mother and allowing her to behave in an unacceptable manner, nothing was changing and Andy was becoming increasingly unhappy - nobody likes to feel manipulated and controlled, and it was affecting him negatively.  If he hadn’t decided to do something different, it is unlikely that his mother’s behaviour would ever have changed as she was continuing to get the results she required (whether that was consciously or subconsciously).


It’s time to stop


If you recognise that you use this behaviour, especially towards your children, now is the time to do something about it.  If you don’t address it and change your discipline techniques to something more appropriate, you could be creating future psychological problems for your child.


If you use this technique on adults, you may not have realised the negative effect it can have on them.  Try doing something differently.  I know it's difficult if you don't like conflict, but it's likely that you're hurting your friends and family far more than you would if you spoke to them about what was bothering you.  After all, do you want to be known for being manipulative and controlling?



If you require help with anything I've written here, please contact us for a free, no-obligation conversation about how we can help you.


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