Why Ignoring a Child’s Behavior Doesn’t Always Work

Ignoring a child’s annoying or challenging behavior is a super common strategy. The idea is that if we take attention away from behaviors we want to reduce (e.g., tantrums, whining, hitting) the appeal will be lost for the child, and the behavior will be extinguished. POOF, it’s gone!

I think there’s a place for ignoring. I also think that it sometimes doesn’t work.

We have to understand that it’s normal for kids to crave adult attention. Being attached to a safe adult is literally what keeps them alive. We also need to remember that ALL behavior is communicating a need of some sort. We may not *like* how a child expresses their need (and that’s valid – we’ll get to limits in a second), but ignoring the need doesn’t make it go away.

Basically, if the child’s goal is to get attention and they’re brushed aside, that need for connection doesn’t disappear into thin air. Instead, they become unsure how to relate in a positive way. So, they try other, less-pleasant-for-us strategies. And if Unhelpful Behavior #1 doesn’t do the trick either (because it’s ignored by you), it’s not long before a new behavior emerges – and it’s often even more challenging than the one that came before it!

Soon, it’s like you’re playing whack-a-mole with all these problems popping up, and your well-meaning loved ones just keep telling you to ignore it.

I know what you’re thinking, and no, meeting a need in an appropriate way DOES NOT encourage the irritating behavior to recur in the future. Let’s think about this way: when you behave in clingy/grumpy/annoying ways (and don’t try to tell me you never do that), how do you want your loved ones to respond? You’re looking for them to treat you with care and understanding, even if you’re asking for it in unpleasant ways, right?

If your loved one instead reacts by refusing to acknowledge you, by turning away and not responding – what happens then? Sure, maybe sometimes you stop doing said behavior. But if we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes that ignoring just makes us want to up the ante. And we’re supposed to be fully-developed, logical adults. Not a child who’s still figuring this stuff out.

Big truth: When we feel connected to our loved ones, we feel more in control and LESS likely to resort to frustrating behaviors in the future. The way to reduce unwanted behavior is to focus on appropriately meeting the need for connection, or control, or whatever it may be.

That said… you can certainly still set limits around a child’s actions and guide them to getting their need met in more appropriate ways. Here are some examples:

Situation: Your child is blocking your laptop so you can’t see the screen. They’re giggling. (Need for attention/connection)

  • OKAY THE FEELING: “You think it’s funny to stand in front of the computer when I’m working. You want me to stop and play with you.”
  • SET A LIMIT: “I’m going to finish my email.”
  • GIVE AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE: “When you want to play, you can tell me with your words. Once I send my email, we can do your puzzle together.”

Situation: Your child is crawling all over you and refuses to listen when you ask them to stop. (Need for physical affection)

  • OKAY THE FEELING: “You want to be really close to me right now.”
  • SET A LIMIT: “My body isn’t for climbing on right now.”
  • GIVE AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE: “You can sit beside me on the sofa and we’ll play Thumb War.”

Situation: Your child is whining incessantly for the tablet, which you’ve said no to 100 times. (Need to be heard / need for agency)

  • OKAY THE FEELING: “You love the tablet, and you’re really sad to be without it.”
  • SET A LIMIT: “We’re not using the tablet right now.”
  • GIVE AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE: “We can play with your Legos or go outside together. Let me know which one you want to do.”

In all of the examples above, you may need to repeat the process a few times! If it continues, it’s okay to bring in natural consequences: for example, “If you choose to keep climbing on me, you choose for me to stand up and walk away. If you choose to sit beside me, you choose for me to stay here with you.” Make sure you stick to your guns so your child learns you mean what you say! Consistency is vital in decreasing unwanted behaviors.

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