Don’t Ignore Your Children

IMG_1346Many of the popular books I’ve read about managing children’s unpleasant behaviors (whining, tattling, screaming, tantruming, name-calling…) include a similar “strategy” for raising young children.  Adults should ignore a child’s unwanted behaviors.

Ignore.

One logical (though incomplete) idea underlies this suggestion: children will continue with behaviors that meet their needs.  If a child is trying to get attention by tantruming, and we give that tantrum our attention, we reinforce the use of a tantrum as a suitable behavior for getting attention.  Our energy, positive or negative, reinforces behavior.

From a behaviorist perspective, sure – ignoring works.  A child who seeks attention through a tantrum who does not find attention at the end of that equation will learn over time to stop tantruming.  But the problem is this: that child still needs attention.

IMG_1349Ignoring does not help a child learn to meet her needs.  When she is in the midst of a tantrum, she is using the tools she has to try and get what she needs.  Adults assume strong behaviors are a choice among many available to the child.  If we can more accurately see that these unpleasant behaviors are the last available tool for a child who is pushed beyond her pro-social-skill-level, we can actually become more helpful in our interventions.

Ignoring relies on anti-social modeling to teach pro-social skills, which just doesn’t work.  Do we really want to raise children who ignore the voices of those they are close to?  I find it ironic that adults so often complain about children who don’t listen, but then also rely on a strategy of ignoring the unpleasant behaviors of their children.

Teaching children to ignore their peers destroys community.  Not only are we adults advised to ignore the tough behaviors of our children, we often instruct children to do the same towards their peers.  Adults are capable of contextualizing child’s unpleasant behavior into context, thereby remaining unruffled.  We try to give children that same ability.  Don’t let it bother you when she looks at you like that.  Just ignore him when he makes that sound.  This is a good thing!  We want children to be more understanding of one another, and gracious with the strong behaviors of their peers.  But teaching children to ignore each other does not facilitate that understanding.

For example, let’s consider a child making faces at another child across the room.  We quickly suggest that the irritated child “Just ignore it.”  But let’s look at the scenario as a whole.

The face-maker…

  • has the right to creative expression, but not at the expense of another person’s need for peace.  Needs to access empathy.
  • might possibly be trying to stir up some commotion in order to elicit attention from adults.  Needs connection.
  • might lack play-entry skills and, looking for a way to interact with peers, chooses an annoying entry.  Needs skills.

The irritated child…

  • might be an introvert, and is looking for a way to be alone.  Needs skills of self-advocacy.
  • might have difficulty with sensory processing.  Needs accommodations. 
  • could be reacting strongly against his peer because his quiet requests for attention are going unnoticed.  Needs attention.
  • might be hungry, or tired, or ill.  Needs physical care.

And these lists could go on!  In short – ignoring a child, and teaching children to ignore each other disrespects the magnitude of the need underlying the behavior.

IMG_1351What can we do instead?  Because, while ignoring a child is ineffective for helping them to meet their needs, responding to the unpleasant behaviors without teaching pro-social skills fails to support a child’s emotional learning.

1.  Teach new skills.  In the moment, use consistent, short scripts that will help a child access a different way of acting.  Less words is better.

  • You want my attention.  You are yelling.  When you want my attention, tap on my leg instead.
  • You want to play.  You are hurting your friend.  When you want to play, ask, ‘Can I play?’
  • You want quiet.  You are whining.  Instead, ask, ‘Can I have quiet?’ or go find the headphones.

Sometimes, words don’t work because of how strong the behavior is.  In these moments, it’s best to help a child center before trying to teach.

2. Use language that respects needs.  Children who are acting strongly are asking for you to notice them.  Our language can help maintain connection and point to the needs under the behavior.

  • You need something.  I can tell because you are whining.  I can understand you better when you use a regular voice.  I’ll hold your hand while you think of the words.

3.  Keep cool.  Ignoring is one of the highest forms of disrespect.  Frankly, the last time someone ignored me, I just got louder.  When a child uses unpleasant tools to meet a need, take a deep breath, and under-react.

4.  Model pro-social behaviors.  Don’t yell.  Don’t plead.  Don’t mock others when they aren’t looking.  When you are angry, do what you want your children to do when they are angry.

5.  Change your response.  When children fall into a pattern of repeating the same challenging behaviors over and over, we have to help them break the cycle.  If we respond the same way we always have, we are supporting their continued use of that behavior.

Two Examples:

A five-year-old resists getting ready in the morning.  That resistance turns explosive:

Child: “I don’t want to get a brush for my hair!”
Me: “I understand. You wish you didn’t have to.  Your hair is covering your eyes, and it is important to pull it back so it will be out of your way.”
Child: “I won’t do it!”
Me: “You feel strongly about that.  When your hair is out of your eyes, you can keep playing.”  I stay present and repsonsive, but non-emotive.
Child: “NO!  You are NOT in charge of MY body!”
Me: “That’s true.  Still, your hair makes it hard for you to see.  I wonder why you resist putting it back?”
Child: “I don’t want to miss my friends!”
Me: “I see. You are worried your friends will play without you.”
Child: “Yes.”
Me: “Maybe we could ask them to wait for you?”
Child: (to friends) “Could you not play until I get my hair out of my eyes?”
Friends: “Yep.”

To children are irritating each other at the table.  The first child (1) makes a face at the second child (2).

2: “STOP DOING THAT!”
1: “I’m still doing it.”
2: “STOP!  Emily, 1 won’t stop!”
Me: “I wonder why?  1, do you hear 2 asking you to stop?”
1: “Yes.”
Me: “I wonder why you aren’t stopping.” (I take a guess in line with the child’s typical intent behind peer interactions.) “Do you want to play with 2?”
1: “Yes.  I want to play parent and kid.”
Me: “Do you want to ask? That way, he’ll know what you want.”
1: “Do you want to play parent and kid with me?”
2: “Okay.”

………………………

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Categories: Emotional Development, Guidance, Respect, Social Development | Tags: , , , , | 45 Comments

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45 thoughts on “Don’t Ignore Your Children

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  3. Susan Schwandner

    Any ideas on a whiny 2 year old boy? He is the 3rd child (all boys) and all he does is whine and cry all day. No exaggerating here. I have a home daycare. When I try to talk to him, he just keeps saying no to everything I say. There is no pleasing him or soothing him. He whines about everything. Help?!

    • I have a home daycare as well, so the situation sounds familiar! First, rule out the obvious needs (food, sleep, etc). Beyond that, his whining is serving to meet some need. Your first priority is finding out what need that whining is filling (attention, connection, power) and help teach him other ways to meet those needs. When children are whiny with me, I secure eye contact, and say (as matter-of-factly as possible) “I hear you whining. When you whine, it’s difficult to know what you need. If you need my attention, you can say, ‘Mom? Can I …’.” Then, stay close, but wait for him to adjust his methods before responding. At two, there is a TON going on (which, with 3 kids and a home daycare) I’m sure you know already! :) He is battling his internal drive for autonomy alongside his desire for care and protection. And, as the youngest, he is worried about losing his place as “the baby” of the group. Have you had a new baby enroll in your program lately? As with most behaviors, the whining itself is likely developmental. If you continue to respond dramatically to the behavior, he will continue to whine. If you help him learn other ways to act, then he can use those pro-social strategies to get his needs met. Hope that helps!!

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  9. Courtney

    I am a first time mother of an 11month old son and I am just beginning to explore the world of managing my childs behavior in appropriate ways. To be honest it is quite overwhelming at this point! I am having a great deal of difficulty with his breakdowns/tantrums/screaming fits or whatever it should be called when I am not able to give him 100% of my attention. He has become extremely “clingy” and cries uncontrollably when I try to do even the simplest of things such as put him down at my feet with toys while attempting to make a meal or just use the restroom. Even if he is sitting with his dad and I attempt to to into another room to grab something he will not stop crying until I return and pick him up and comfort him. It has become impossible to get anything done anymore. Most of my friends suggest to “ignore him” and he will learn to self soothe or self entertain – I don’t necessarily agree but I simply cannot hold him 24/7 so I am having to let him sit and cry. I just want to use the bathroom without him sitting on my lap or prepare a meal without having to wear him in a carrier!!!! I try to reassure him by telling him that I will be able to play with him in a few minutes and I always tell him what I am going to do and that I will be right back before I leave the room but he is only 11 months old so this doesn’t really help the problem. Any suggestions on how to comfort him and remedy the situation without having to ignore him.

    • Louise

      I would think he is going through a phase of separation anxiety and although it doesn’t help right now he WILL grow out of it. My daughter has just gone through a phase like this. I responded constantly and it was so wearing but after 7 weeks she finally has become more independent again. She is almost 2 but we had a big period of change which brought it on?

    • I agree with Louise. At 11 months, my daughter was thinking about taking her first steps, starting to say words, and really growing in leaps and bounds. She became quite clingy once she started walking, and I hear that it’s quite common for children to do when they are making big developmental progress.

      My daughter is 14 months now, and will often hold on to me while I cook, but I just accept it, and move a bit more awkwardly around the kitchen, or put her in the carrier on my back and make peace with the fact that I have to move slower and maybe not do as much. Sometimes she just wants to be held for a few minutes to see and hear about what I’m doing. When she’s really needy, I’ll also make sure to wear her in her carrier (rather than using her stroller) as often as I can during the day, and for her naps. I guess I make attempts to smother her, but of course I don’t really have time for all that (and I’m not sure that an infant can ever get too much attention), so I just keep her close as I can, as much as I can. And somehow, these days she is really good at reading alone on the kitchen floor and playing by herself when I ask her to. We are lucky to have a kitchen that adjoins the living room, where she can play and also see me, and I can look up and comment on what she’s doing.

    • I highly suggest you look into a style of parenting known as RIE. Have you read much of Janet Lansbury or Lisa Sunbury before? (janetlansbury.com, regardingbaby.org) Here are a few articles to get you started: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/10/would-you-pick-up-this-crying-baby/, http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/09/7-reasons-to-calm-down-about-babies-crying/, and http://www.regardingbaby.org/2012/10/19/nothing-else-matters-the-gift-of-rie/,

    • Debbie

      Hi Courtney,
      My daughter is 9mths and just recently starting the super-clingy ‘phase’. I think it’s a combination of seperation anxiety / teething / and frustration because she’s trying to walk… regardless of the cause, she gets very upset at times when I try to put her down and will stand clinging to my legs – which at times is overwhelming and frustrating for me, as like you say, it makes it very very hard to get anything done.
      I can’t cook and find it very hard to clean with her in a carrier and, again like you, she get’s upset being with Daddy if she just wants to be with Mum! I have found that if I need to cook/prepare something, she is usually happy (for short periods of time) if I just sit her in her highchair and have her in the kitchen with me. I’m talking to her the whole time (telling her what I’m doing or discussing different ingredients/pantry contents etc… or I’m singing silly songs). Having her on my level, so that she can see everything that is going on seems to really help. Worth a try, if you haven’t already.

  10. Amber

    I agree with the underlying idea that ignoring is disrespectful, but the scripts are an awful lot of talking for a small child. Sometimes saying shhh is more than enough. Also, if an adult is acting in a drastcally antisocial way toward another adult, ignoring is appropriate.

    Telling a child how they feel is another tactic I am not a fan of.

    All children are different and also at different ages the same child will have divergent needs.

    My point is just that this post seems very black and white and this issue is much more nuanced.

    • Thank you for taking the time to share! I know in the US, we tend to rely a *lot* on language as a primary means to relate to others, which can look unhelpful with young children. I do think reflecting how a child is feeling, “You’re feeling furious!” for example, can help give a vocabulary to name their emotions, but I can see exactly the point you’re making, and I think it’s an important one. Thank you for sharing! Warmly, Emily

  11. K. LeGallais

    The art of ignoring had nothing to do with ignoring the CHILD, it has to do with ignoring the behaviour. Eg. Child screams- you don’t respond to the screaming but you act as if the screaming never took place. So you just continue on without “reacting” to the screaming. This is where many get confused- don’t ignore the child, ignore the behaviour.

    • Respectfully, I disagree. I don’t believe children have the ability to discriminate between their behavior and their identity. When we respond to a child’s screaming by pretending the scream never took place we are placing conditions on the child’s behavior which make them more or less deserving of our attention. Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting” was eye-opening for me in this regard. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Warmly, Emily

  12. Nicole

    I agree with this post to a certain point. there are times when my (3yo) child is totally out of control and she has gone to a place where rational calm words cannot be heard. that is when I walk away and once she calms down we can talk about what happened. otherwise that situation can suck me in and I have a tantrum along with her. I no longer am the parent and I become someone I am not proud of. my words and actions do not reflect the parent I strive to be. so to remain in control, I ignore her. also there are many times in the car in which she looses herself due to various reasons and I feel powerless because I NEED to remain in control of the vehicle.so I tell her that I am going to ignore her misbehavior and will talk to her calmly when she is ready. in these instances, I do not feel I am doing her an injustice , instead I feel as though I am showing her how to control herself.

  13. Cathy V

    I have been reading these articles and while most of them are good advice for older kids, I don’t see how many of these things can be applied to toddlers/young preschoolers. I can do the whole “I know you are angry but” and so on but during a tantrum a 3 year old isn’t going to listen or care about what you say or think about the implications of their behavior.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I neglected to specify in this article, but the group I work with ranges in age from 20 months to 5 years old. I think the ability for children to benefit from this type of interaction depends some on how common it is in their experience. Warmly, Emily

  14. This is an interesting topic. I’m glad you chose to write about it, because you bring up some valid points that I never thought about. Especially the part about ignoring being a form of disrespect. I never really considered it to be so, but by projecting yourself (as an adult) into the situation, you’re absolutely right. In most cases being ignored by another adult would make you feel frustrated, small and upset and probably result in a further fight to be heard as you stated. Imagine being unhappy about a product and calling the company to complain, but instead of any response, there is simply dead air on the line, because they don’t like what you are saying. I would be extremely irritated and angry. However, I also understand what some of the other comments are saying as well. In my own instance though, I think most of my ignoring a behaviour in a child has to do with having a (usually large) group of other children in the classroom as well. Sometimes I feel it’s more effective to continue a project or activity with the children who are participating than tending to a child’s “negative” behaviour or tantrum. I will say though, in this type of situation I usually have already attempted to tend to the child a couple of different ways and was unsuccessful, so if the behaviour continues, I feel I am left with no choice, but to move on in hopes the child will see the other children modelling the desired behaviour and want to join back in. I do not have children of my own yet, but think I might perhaps be less likely to ignore when one on one. My observations are only from an educator’s stand point. I saw on Facebook you will be writing a follow up post later in the week. I would love some ideas for scenarios pertaining to group activities within a classroom if at all possible. Thanks for the unique perspective and thought provoking post!

  15. sarahkurliand

    Thank you Emily for sharing your wisdom on peaceful parenting! I am so in love with your ideas :)
    I never ignore my spirited 2 year old’s “tantrums” however I am finding when he is in the throes of it, there is no reasoning with him. So we have started having alone time where he goes to his room and calms himself down. When hes finished, he says “Finished Mama” and I come get him and we then can talk about it. To some, it may appear that I am ignoring him in a time of need but I feel like he needs to be alone and me talking over him screaming would only antagonize the situation.
    Thanks again!

  16. Thank you Emily! I am so in love with your blog and ideas for gentle parenting. I especially appreciate the “what to do instead” portions b/c I think we parents are so often told not to do something and then left in the dark :)

    I never ignore my 2 year old, spirited son’s “tantrums” however when he is too revved up, he likes his alone time in his room to regroup himself before we handle the situation. He has started asking for “Lone time” now :) Proud mama moment! xo thanks again

  17. While I tend to agree with most of this, I have a few issues with it. First, unlike spanking or other types of punishments, where I think it is true that a child doesn’t learn anything from it (besides, avoid punishment), a child does, in fact, learn through “extinction” which in this case could involve what you consider ignoring. Extinction being, the gradual and developmentally appropriate removal of an action or response that creates a space for an appropriate action. For example, a child doesn’t learn to dress themselves if we always do it for them. We must slowly and with training and in a developmentally appropriate manner, remove our response (in this case, of dressing them). We teach, we guide, we support, and we stop reacting and let them act on their own. In the case of behavioral issues, we would do the same thing. Teach acceptable behavior, support them in those behaviors, and when the time comes, step back and give them that space to learn and grow. Second, ignoring a behavior and ignoring a child are two separate things. Ignoring a behavior can mean, I won’t give you what you want and I also won’t yell/punish you. Instead, I will sit here with you and wait until you have the time and space to work through this. I also think that you can and should address some of your issues at a different time/place. 1) giving the appropriate attention at appropriate times. They might be acting out because you aren’t giving them enough attention, not because they actually need you for whatever they are whining about. give it to them then! 2) actively teach them, NOT while they are freaking out but when they are calm. Model using a gentle voice, gentle words, or gentle actions. We practice “please hands” with our girls to get them to not grab, not while they are fighting over a toy, but while they are playing peacefully. finally, my daughters are two and three. Asking “why” questions (which is basically what you did in those scenarios at the end) is something I avoid. I don’t think they (as toddlers) have the metacognitive capacities to appropriately respond and it would just frustrate them and escalate things. These questions can also imply that there is an “okay” reason to do certain things (like hit, yell, etc.) when there is not; or that they need to justify their emotions instead of just acknowledge and experience them. Instead, I will maybe wait until they have finished then quietly sit for a moment and then say: “you’re angry? that’s okay. but you’re not using a gentle voice. when you can use a gentle voice like the one I’m using, I can help you.” wait progressively longer times if they don’t use a gentle voice right away.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comment. I could not agree with you more. I think the points that you make are entirely valid. What you call ignoring, I call under-reacting, but I think we are on the same page. In your examples, the adult continues to be connected to the child, provide a physical presence, eye-contact, verbal support (when necessary and possible), and *most* importantly, modeling and teaching (some out of the moment) for pro-social behaviors. The style of ignoring that I am writing about is actually pretending that the child is not even present: a screaming child with no eye-contact from an adult, an adult who actively turns their back on a child so the child gets no reinforcement for the anti-social behavior.

      I think we still disagree about the ability to ignore the behavior but not the child. I don’t think children have the abstract thinking to perceive a difference, so ignoring a behavior would feel like a conditional acceptance.

      I have had your ‘why’ comment rolling around in my head for the last several days. You’ve got me thinking! I mostly ask my 3-5 year olds, not younger toddlers. For me, it’s an information-gathering time. I do think there is an appropriate time and place for the expression of all behaviors, so when I ask a 4 year old, “Why did you hit her?” and she says, “Because I’m MAD!”…then I have something to work with. I have a few who hit, for example, when they are trying to enter play, and some who hit because they are angry. Sometimes, out of context, I don’t know the whole picture, and asking ‘why’ helps the children learn to look for a reason behind their actions. Honestly, you have given me something to think about…and in the end, I think this is *why* I do what I do. :)

      Thank you for the generosity of your time!!

  18. This is really great! I do ‘ignore’ a behaviour sometimes though… Like, if all the skillful verbal reasoning fails, and let’s face it, it can be hard to reason with a 3 year old sometimes (and let’s say, it’s not a dangerous situation or not being mean to another child, etc). The next step I take is to ignore what they’re doing, and then, I usually find, that the behaviour can stop, by me just saying, ok, you know that I don’t like what you’re doing, but I’m not going to react to it!

  19. Katherine Dahlquist

    While you make some good points, I do not completely agree. I studied special education in college, and we were taught that in some instances, ignoring is a completely acceptable method of helping a child learn to behave. If a child is throwing a tantrum over not getting their way, I do not think that is their “last available tool”- it is often the first tool they go for. I have a young toddler who has started throwing herself on the floor screaming when not getting her way. I ignore it, and she stops after a couple minutes and moves on to something else. When I used to try and comfort her, or help her work through it, nothing was accomplished. While I do not think ignoring our children for some behaviors (sometimes a meltdown is due to hunger or fatigue, which needs to be dealt with), when you know the reason for the behavior, ignoring is a good method. I do not see it being at all detrimental to their development.

    • Thank you, Katherine, for taking the time to share! I do agree – ignoring will eliminate the anti-social behaviors (it works, that’s why so many rely on it) – but my big problem with it is that it serves as an anti-social model of how to be in a relationship with another person. I think you’re also right – trying to comfort a tantruming child, or trying to problem solve in the middle of an explosion is unhelpful. I really like Janet Lansbury’s advice to under-respond. It’s not that we *engage* with an exploding child, but we also don’t ignore that child for the sake of shaping behavior. We connect at a helpful level to provide a positive model of how to act.

  20. Noemia

    Thank you for such a wonderful post! I love how you give your kids a voice! I love it how you encourage and allow them to speak out about their needs, feelings, and plans! It is amazing to see the difference in dealing with tantrums of children who, with some help, can figure out what they really need. Thank you for being such a great example!

  21. Jennifer O.

    What a great post, thank you! I have worked with young children for a while and have learned and practiced as best I can to not over- react ( which is easier said than done sometimes), but this is a great reminder and explanation about trying to identify and help them through the reason for their behavior. Of course it is a bit harder when the child is younger and doesn’t have all the words to be able to communicate what it is when they’ve figured it out, but that is all the more reason to at least try to help them through it since they can’t communicate it!
    This is my first visit to your page, and I’ll try to watch for your post about intensity, I’m interested to read your thoughts! Thank you for sharing!

  22. Heather hughes

    What about in the example when I child is having a total melt down? You have asked them to take a breath you have offered a hug, you have tried to be there in a calm way…and it still continues. I choose to leave the room. Which could be observed as ignoring. my child needs to go through the emotional cycle on his own without me staring at him with the energy of when will this be over. The more I look at him the more he flares up. As soon as he is alone he processes it and when he is ready he comes out of the room and we continue to make up and deal with issue. It has worked beautifully and I see the strength in him. If I grown up looses it on you, we try our words and if that doesn’t work we walk away…..how is this different with a child. Is it wrong to expect them to emotional grow without having a crutch right by their side….?

    • Hi Heather,

      You bring up a really important scenario – one I started to work through in this post, and then decided to table for its own post because it is such a big one! I think to respond eye-to-eye with that kind of intensity will typically not be helpful. (There’s a link in my post about “under-responding” that takes you to an article by Janet Lansbury — it is awesome!) It sounds like you are astutely observing your child’s need for alone time (a very important skill) in order to recenter before moving forward. My real problem with the parenting strategy of ignoring is that it seems to say: “disconnect” or “withdraw” as a way of not “rewarding” bad behavior with attention. Your honoring his need for space to recenter in the midst of very strong emotions does not seem to fit with this idea of ignoring – it seems that you are carefully in tune with his needs. My own daughter needs a bath when she starts to spin out of control, and that process isn’t often one she welcomes. But when she gets out of the tub, she has access to her problem solving reserves in a way that feels good for her.

      I don’t know if that’s helpful. I anticipated some questions about very strong tantrums! Be on the lookout for another post soon about intensity. :)

      Warmly, Emily

  23. Christi Dean

    Another brilliant post! Your blog is absolutely my favorite resource for gentle parenting. I recommend it to clients all the time! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  24. SO good! Right on. :) I’m reminded of adults saying dismissively, “I think he’s just doing it for attention.” Which means….. what, exactly? Meritless? Punishable?
    When the question of course, is, WHY is this child asking for attention, and in THIS way?

  25. Wonderfully written and so true! I too have read so many times that we should ignore children’s unacceptable behaviour but for me it’s never worked. It just makes everyone involved more stressed … including me! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Susan! I always come back to the idea that even if a strategy works in the short term, what is its long term cost to the development of our children? That they disconnect form their needs? That they learn to shut down when others aren’t doing what they want? Thank you for your thoughts! Warmly, Emily

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