When Is It OK to Ignore Bad Behavior? (A Child Therapist’s Perspective)
The idea of ignoring your child can be a heated topic that is commonly misunderstood. You may have heard the term “planned ignoring” before. Child therapists and behavior specialists often use this term, and it means that a person ignores a behavior with intention.
As a child therapist, I frequently heard parents say, “But I’m not just going to ignore my child and let him do whatever he wants!”
However, planned ignoring does not mean that you ignore whatever behavior you want to just because you don’t feel like dealing with it. That could be dangerous!
Instead, you systematically choose a behavior to ignore and oftentimes use additional techniques to enhance this intervention. Let’s take a look at if and when it’s OK to ignore your child’s behavior.
First, what does planned ignoring mean?
Planned ignoring simply means that you choose a “bad” behavior that your child engages in and ignore it consistently.
In order for planned ignoring to be effective, you need to regularly provide praise and positive attention (such as through quality time or sometimes even rewards) for good behaviors. This will help your child understand that…
Good behaviors = Praise and positive attention
Bad behaviors = Discipline and/or no attention
The point is for your child to see that his bad behavior no longer gets him what he wants. This causes him to eventually stop the behavior because it’s no longer effective for him.
How do you use planned ignoring?
- Choose a bad behavior that you would normally give a reaction to.
- A good idea is to start with a behavior that your child is likely doing for attention. For instance, my daughter likes to throw herself on the floor and then look at Mommy and Daddy to see how we react. This would be a good behavior for us to try ignoring. (Psst… I offer a FREE bonus below to help with similar tantrum-like behaviors!)
- Another good place to start is with a behavior that seems to be getting worse when you use discipline or “scolding.” In that case, the attention you’re giving to the behavior might be making it worse. So ask yourself if ignoring could be a possibility. (Related Post: How to Use Time-Out to Improve Your Child’s Behavior)
- Avoid responding to your child during and immediately after the undesired behavior. This means that you shouldn’t respond verbally or emotionally. Therefore, don’t make eye contact, don’t make any facial expressions, don’t huff and puff, and don’t say anything along the lines of “I’m just going to ignore you” (because that’s the opposite of ignoring).
- Ignore the behavior consistently, and try to get other caretakers on board with it as well.
- If you’ve given your child a demand, continue with the demand by repeating it as needed while ignoring the behavior.
- Remember what you ultimately want your child to do.
- For instance, if you tell your child to put his iPad away (which is normally like pulling teeth), ignore the stomping and yelling that he does while putting it away. He’s ultimately doing what you asked! Once he becomes better at doing what you ask, you can focus on shaping up the stomping and yelling, but for now, ignore it. (Related Post: Child Therapist Secrets to Curbing Your Kid’s Screen Time Obsession)
- Provide positive attention immediately once your child begins engaging in good behavior again.
So when is it OK to ignore bad behavior?
- If your child’s bad behavior persists or worsens, despite your efforts to discipline him, then ignoring might be a better intervention. (Related Post: 10 Mistakes to Avoid When Disciplining Your Child)
- You can usually ignore any defiant or angry statements made by your child, including when he’s mocking or mimicking you, yelling at you, arguing with you, or telling you “No” or “Shut up.” This may sound alarming, but remember that there are ways you can teach your child appropriate behavior whenever he’s calm.
- You can also ignore certain angry expressions, such as stomping, eye-rolling, or mean faces.
- Tantrum behaviors can generally be ignored. However, sometimes it helps to use a few other techniques along with the ignoring, especially when communication issues are at the core of the behavior.
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When you SHOULD NOT ignore your child:
- Never ignore any dangerous or destructive behavior that could cause injury (or worse).
- Ignoring should not be done if it ends up giving your child what he wants out of the bad behavior. For instance, if your child continues to play when you tell him to do something, such as go to bed, don’t choose to ignore that. It will only cause him to continue ignoring your commands. (Related post: Child Therapist Secrets on How to Get Your Kid to Bed)
- Once your child has returned to “good” behavior, give him praise or positive attention for it. Don’t continue ignoring your child at that point, and don’t hold a grudge for the behaviors he did.
- If your child is able to meet higher behavioral expectations, then another intervention may be more appropriate than planned ignoring.
- For instance, if your child rarely engages in defiant behaviors but one day says “Shut up!” and stomps away, then it may be better to talk to him about his day to see what could have contributed to this behavior.
What if I tried ignoring my child and it doesn’t work?
Any time you start to ignore a behavior that your child previously got attention for, your child is going to be thrown off and will try even harder to push your buttons.
But stay strong! If you remain consistent with ignoring the behavior without giving in, it will eventually go away. In other words, things will get worse before they get better (Sorry!).
If you and other caregivers have tried planned ignoring consistently for about three weeks and the behavior has not gotten any better, then it’s time to switch to a new intervention.
If you’re still on the fence about whether you should ignore your child, check out my FREE course below. It’s got additional techniques you can use to help your child listen better.
Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist before I became a stay-at-home mom, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.
References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley (Defiant Children) and Alan Kazdin (Parent Management Training).