Many 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.
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.
Ignoring 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.
- 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.
What 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.
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.”
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?”
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?”
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?”
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