– Parents’ Corner –

How to Ignore Misbehavior

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Note: We feel it is important to do your best to understand why the child is misbehaving and to ask yourself important questions such as “What need is my child trying to have met?” and “How can I help teach my child a more effective way to get his/her need met?” We also strongly encourage parents to check in and consider if they are spending enough one on one time with their child, and whether this could be the reason the child is craving attention.

The Power of Attention

Attention is very rewarding for a child. Positive attention refers to praise or nonverbal acknowledgment of a behavior you are pleased with seeing. Negative attention refers to a parent’s attempt to stop an undesired behavior. For positive attention such as praising, it promotes attachment, self-esteem, and security. While negative attention seems undesirable, it can be rewarding for a child because it is still attention. Sometimes parents tend to give more attention to negative behaviors due to being busy, or the desire to avoid public embarrassment or frustration.

What is Ignoring and Why Does it Work?

Ignoring is a very active process for the parent. It is important to first and foremost keep yourself regulated when your child is exhibiting an undesirable behavior. When you are ignoring, do not look at your child or talk to him/her in order to teach your child in order to get your attention, they have to demonstrate what is expected of them.

According to the CDC, ignoring works because it takes away attention from the behaviors you want to decrease. Some undesirable behaviors for attention may include whining, bickering, throwing temper tantrums, or interrupting conversations.

Steps to Actively Ignoring Behaviors

Some parents choose to tell their children about their plan to ignore undesirable behaviors. Some may something such as, “from now on, if there’s enter undesirable behavior(s), I’m going to pretend I don’t see or hear you. Do you understand?”

The first step is choosing which behaviors to ignore. The behaviors should be attention-seeking, and not pose a safety risk for your child or anyone else.

The second step is whenever your child does the above misbehavior, take away all of your attention and do not communicate with the child during the episode. It’s important to keep yourself grounded and regulated by deep-breathing, counting, or listening to music, etc. For toddlers, ignoring may last 20 seconds. For an older child, ignoring could last several minutes.

Wait for the misbehavior to stop, then quickly return your attention to the child and praise them for the behavior you want to see. This step is important and shows the child he/she can get attention and their needs met more quickly through desirable behavior.

Example: At the dinner table, a family is discussing how their day was. The four year old starts bounding in his seat and interrupting while the mother is speaking. The mother keeps speaking calmly at a normal volume. Eventually, while the conversation is still going on, the four year old stops bouncing. When the mother finishes speaking, she looks at the four year old and says, “I love it when you sit still in your chair and listen at dinner. Why don’t you tell us about your day today?”

How to Ignore Behaviors the Right Way

The CDC makes a clear distinction between “actively ignoring versus neglect: “When you ignore your child, you do not neglect him or stand by while he misbehaves. Instead, you take all your attention away from your child and his behavior.” The behavior is what is to be ignored, and once you see a desirable behavior, give positive attention. When you yell at your child, this can be rewarding, especially if you were not paying attention to the child before the misbehavior occurred.  

The key to actively ignoring and eliminating problem-behaviors is consistency and predictability. It helps to have both parents using this technique consistently.

When you Should not Ignore Behaviors

Ignoring should be used for eliminating attention-seeking behaviors that don’t pose a safety risk for your child or another person. Dangerous or destructive behaviors such as hitting or throwing things should not be ignored. We recommend using consequences such as timeout for your child if this happens.

Be Prepared

Your child will need to adjust to the new expectations placed on him/her. Your child will need to learn over time the connection between desirable behaviors = positive attention and undesirable behaviors = no attention. That being said, don’t be surprised when your child tests your limits by becoming louder or trying to get in your face for attention. If a parent gives in to the child’s demands after the child escalates, it could teach the child that he/she needs to escalate faster to get what he/she wants.

Exceptions to Ignoring Behavior

Some children with autism spectrum disorder may avoid interaction with others or have a harder time communicating their needs. For these children, it is recommended to use a different behavior modification approach.

Going Forward

For more behavioral modification strategies and techniques, check out our article on how this counting method can eliminate undesirable behaviors.

At Sunny Path Counseling, we understand each child and family are unique and respond differently to different approaches. To get started, see our services page.


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