I recently read a blog post by a counselor who said that ignoring your children’s misbehavior is not helpful. He said that parents need to interrupt behavior. I think that ignoring can be a very helpful parenting strategy, but it isn’t appropriate for every situation.

Clearly if your children are squabbling and one is hurting the other, you should intervene. If your child is destroying property, you’ll intervene. Ignoring is just one strategy in your parental toolbox.

Ignore and Attend

Behavioral psychologists explain that ignoring works because your attention is rewarding, even if you are scolding or arguing. When you withdraw your attention, you withdraw the reward. Allan Kazdin, Ph.D.’s group at the Yale Child Study Center train parents to ignore and attend. Ignoring is only half of the strategy. You also decide what behavior you will pay attention to. Together the two are quite powerful. I’ll also discuss below that some children need more coaching to help them learn the behavior you want to see.

One of the best ways to use this combined strategy is with whining. Let’s assume that you have a talk with your child during calm moment and you explain to him that you are not going to answer him when he whines. You go on to say that when he addresses you in “normal voice” or a “big boy voice,” you will talk to him. This is not to say that you will grant his every wish, but you will respond. Within hours you hear the familiar whiny request, “Mooomm, can you take me to the pool todaaayy?” No response. No eye contact.

Whining persists, perhaps escalates. You need to expect some escalation when you set a new limit. This does not mean that ignoring isn’t working. If you and your child are totally new to this approach, you could prompt him, “Use your big boy voice.” If he does ask in an appropriate manner at that time, you turn your attention to him right away and discuss going to the pool. If you are consistent in your behavior, you’ll discourage the whining, and your prompt attention will encourage appropriate requests.

Another place ignoring and attending are helpful is around homework, or perhaps any frustrating task. Your child sits down to start homework and soon she begins to moan, sigh and whine that she cannot do it. However, she does not ask for help. You might be tempted to run over and say, “Let me have a look.” But you would be better off if you wait until you hear an appropriate request. Once you hear, “Mom, would you help me with this?” in an appropriate voice, be ready to go right over and offer help. If the whining starts, you drift away, but when it stops, you return. See? It’s not just ignoring. It’s also rewarding appropriate behavior.

Teaching Appropriate Behavior

There is another reason that ignoring does not work with some children. Some children are quite rigid, and it is difficult for them to change strategies. Other children have a limited set of interaction strategies to begin with.

A good way around this is to do a role play with your child before you start your ignoring and attending. Explain to your child that want her to ask for help in an appropriate manner. Explains that this means normal voice, calm body and appropriate language. (This means you won’t respond to pounding on the desk or swearing.) Have her try out the appropriate requests so that she actually performs the behavior. This should help when you put the plan into action.

Children also often lack a good strategy for calming themselves down once they have launched into a tantrum. I definitely recommend that parents ignore tantrums. You don’t want your child to believe that he can wear you down with this behavior. However, there are times with rigid children that they get to a point of sobbing and wailing that just doesn’t seem to end.

The best way to deal with this is outside of the tantrum. If tantrums are a frequent problem, talk to your child about activities he can do to calm himself down. Some strategies I have heard children recommend are drawing, listening to music or cuddling with a stuffed animal or pet. It is important for children and adults to have ways to calm themselves. Once you and your child have identified these alternatives, you can ignore the tantrum and perhaps cue your child to use a soothing strategy.

Good luck with ignoring and attending. And let me know how it works!

Author's Bio: 

Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. (www.drcarolynstone.com) educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/.