Often I hear parents saying that they are afraid to use the tool ‘ignoring’ because they have been told that ignoring a child can cause long lasting damage. And of course if we do it the ‘wrong’ way ignoring a child can be hurtful and have a negative impact on a child’s well-being and also on our relationship with the child. So we need to be clear that we are ignoring behaviour, NOT the child. If we aim to ignore the unwanted behaviour in order to diminish it we send a strong signal that we are wiling to connect with our child once the behaviour has lessened. This gives them a way out of the current situation and behaviour, and hope for connection!
Definition of ignoring: consciously refusing to take notice of or acknowledge a certain behaviour.
Ignoring is a great tool to use when our aim is to teach our kids better behaviours and diminish battles in the home in a way that sits well with us, still respects the child, doesn’t damage the relationship and connection with our child, or lead to feelings of shame, blame and GUILT.
- Stop or diminish a certain behaviour by deliberately withholding our attention while our child engages in a specific difficult behaviour. What we choose to focus on the most we will cultivate and grow!
- Lessen the behaviour we don’t want to see by paying little attention to it – we give attention to what we want to see more of.
- Teach your child that the behaviour they choose to engage in (both negative and positive) will have an immediate effect on them! Adult attention is a big reward for the child – taking it away is a consequence!
- Proud role model by ’showing’ them how best to respond to aggressive and unpleasant behaviours. An alternative to screaming and anger! Gives us confidence knowing we can respond the right way, without anger.
- Effective as it is immediate, always at hand and a natural consequence (with little involvement from us).
So ignoring can be one of the most powerful tools we have in our parenting tool box. And parents are often advised to JUST ignore their children while misbehaving, but it’s not always as easy or straightforward as it sounds:
- We feel guilty if we ignore our child – but remember we are NOT ignoring the child – only THE behaviour! I’m ignoring the begging and screaming NOT my child. I love you but not the behaviour!
- Might think that it is not enough ’punishment’ but remember that kids LOVE their parents’ attention so often ignoring IS enough – a form of natural consequence.
- We are simply too tired: it can be hard to stay calm and consistent when we are tired and our kids are just getting to us. So have a think if you need to put time aside for you? What do you need so you can be in a good place: Do something healthy or fun for you, take a break, get outdoors etc.
- Maybe we don’t know how to: if we have been taught to ignore the child i.e. ‘I don’t like you when you scream’ or don’t know when and how to stop ignoring – then it might not be so effective and we give up.
- Habit of responding to every negative thing our kids do: we might not even have thought about the fact that we don’t HAVE to respond to everything. We have just got so into the habit of commenting on everything our child does wrong that we don’t even think about it any more. But when we STOP and THINK: WHY am I doing it? WHAT do I get out of it? Is it working? We might suddenly be more open to try something new.
- Fear of others judgement if we don’t respond, i.e. when we are in public. But I bet you that they are actually just feeling sorry for you or even thinking ‘well done you’.
- End up giving in: which makes it harder each time to stay firm. If we give in we end up rewarding the child, plus we teach him that he just has to get louder and he will get what he wants!
- Anger: our kids can provoke deep emotions in us and bring out the worst in us – when we let our anger run away with us we are in danger of reacting not responding. We might ignore the child not the behaviour (I don’t like what you do – why do you always behave like this – you are so naughty) and we become aggressive >< assertive. Certainly nothing to be proud of and later on we can start feeling GUILTY and then we might go back and apologise which teaches our child that we are not serious about what we want and so the child will show us less respect. CLICK here to read more about Managing Parenting Anger
- To avoid the battles it might create: once we start changing our strategy our child will perhaps just scream louder trying to get back to how it was before. But over time he will learn that it is not working and start rethinking his behaviour! So yes it can get worse before it gets better but just stay firm and be consistent.
So ignoring can be hard, but let’s explore how it works:
Before we start talking about HOW to ignore we need to explore WHAT to ignore or NOT.
What we shouldn’t ignore: hitting, running away, lying, bullying, damaging property, breaking rules, bad grades, meltdowns (for this we need a more sensitive approach). For these behaviours we need other PLANNED consequences.
What we CAN ignore: swearing, arguing, whining, interrupting, backchat, nagging, begging, tantrums, rolling eyes, moodiness, sibling rivalry (to a certain extent).
But bear in mind that what we can or can’t ignore is very individual. We all have different levels of tolerance, values and personalities. For example, I know I can ignore swearing but I know parents who simply can’t and won’t ignore this. If this is the case then don’t, because you will not be able to do it with a fully calm focus and without anger.
Keep in mind: your child might still throw a tantrum – but the measurement of successful ignoring should not be based on the child’s positive behaviour, but on ours and how we feel afterwards!
- Stay curious >< furious: ask WHY they might be doing it? Is it for your attention, is the child tired or hungry, is it at a certain time of day, with certain people or at certain places? Or perhaps they just haven’t heard or understood your request?
- Prevent unwanted behaviour using ignoring: (ignoring should be your LAST resort) i.e. agree to new rules / routines / agreements, prepare and plan an outing or social gathering. Prepare your child for what you expect or don’t expect from them, what you will ignore, why and how: ‘I don’t like it when you scream at me or call me names. So, IF you choose to scream at me, I will give you one chance to calm down and then I will stop talking until you have calmed down. When you are calm, I will be ready to talk again’.
- Prepare for what lies ahead: your child may well have strong reactions to your ignoring, so before you start prepare yourself for what might lie ahead. Give yourself a few seconds to check in with yourself. By preparing ourselves we are less likely to lose our temper, get disappointed, frustrated or react impulsively since we are ready for what might come next. Take a deep breath before you do or say anything – check in with your emotions so they don’t hijack your behaviour.
- Less is more: say what you have to say (your request / boundaries etc.) and STOP there. Don’t try to convince them or use lots of words.
- Let them have their reactions / emotions to your requests: They CAN grieve for what they can’t have or do, have a reaction (anger, disappointment etc.) – that is natural and normal. It is not our job to control our child’s emotions, only our own. Try not to stop your child from feeling or tell him what to feel instead, ‘Stop being so angry, don’t scream – calm down – it will be OK’. Just accept and let go.
- Focus on YOUR actions / body language (not just words): body posture / facial expression / tone, your child will observe your emotions by looking at your body. Be assertive and show (with your body) that you are serious, but safe company to be with!
- FULLY ignore: do not say anything while the behaviour is occurring – subtle glances, smiles or even frowns can be rewarding. And saying, ‘I am ignoring you’ is no longer ignoring! If necessary, distract yourself so you don’t get drawn into power struggles (according to the child’s age).
- Re-engage after ignoring: stop ignoring when the behaviour improves and give positive attention. I know this can be really hard when we might still be angry, but this shows that it is not the child you are ignoring but the behaviour and that you are willing to talk and engage with your child once he / she has calmed down.
Awareness questions: Choose your battles.
- What can you ignore and what can you not ignore?
- What behaviour in your child would you like to see less of, and hence ignore?
Quote: “What we choose to focus on the most we will cultivate and grow!”