"Ignoring attention-seeking behavior is a very effective discipline strategy when it is used appropriately. It can help reduce certain behavior problems, while also teaching your child appropriate ways to gain attention. When combined with other discipline techniques such as praise, reward systems, and time out, selective ignoring can be a great tool.
Selective ignoring can teach your child how to deal with his feelings in a socially appropriate manner.
For example, instead of screaming and stomping his feet when he’s upset, ignoring can teach him that he needs to use his words to express himself if he wants you to console him.
Behaviors You Can Ignore
Ignoring can reduce attention-seeking behavior, such as whining, temper tantrums, and talking back. Without an audience, these behaviors usually aren’t much fun and they'll decrease over time.
Depending on your values, you may consider using ignoring with other behaviors such as swearing. Some parents aren’t willing to tolerate swearing and they prefer to offer a more immediate consequence.
It is important not to ignore more serious behaviors such as aggression. These types of behaviors require a clear negative consequence, such as the loss of privileges or time-out.
How to Actively Ignore
In order for ignoring to be an effective, it requires that you have a positive relationship with your child.
Otherwise, your child won’t be bothered by being ignored. Give your child plenty of positive attention when he's behaving, and ignoring his misbehavior will be an effective consequence.
Ignoring requires that you temporarily stop paying attention to whatever your child is doing. This means no eye contact, no conversation, and no physical touch.
You will know that your attempts at ignoring are effective if the behavior gets worse initially. When a child is not getting the response he wants, he may scream louder, try to get in your face, or whine even more.
Don’t give in if the behavior gets worse. Otherwise, this will reinforce to your child that these behaviors are effective ways to gain your attention. Once you start ignoring, make sure you continue to ignore until the behavior ceases.
Re-Engage When You See Good Behavior
As soon as the behavior stops, provide your child with attention again. For example, as soon as a temper tantrum stops say, “Oh Bobby great job sitting there quietly. Should we talk now about what we can do with our afternoon since the rain changed our plans?” This reinforces to your child that being calm will gain your attention.
It can be helpful to sit your child down and explain the plan ahead of time. Tell him when you will ignore him and explain how he can regain your attention. Then, your child will be aware of the direct link between his behavior and your reaction.
Common Concerns about Ignoring
Sometimes parents are concerned that ignoring will be emotionally scarring to their child. It’s important to remember that you aren’t ignoring your child; it is the negative behaviors you are ignoring.
At other times, parents worry that they cannot tolerate ignoring their child’s behaviors. It can be helpful to distract yourself with a book or television to help you ignore. It can also help to keep reminding yourself that although it may be distressing in the short-term, ignoring attention-seeking behavior will help your child in the long-term.
It’s important to work with other caregivers on discipline strategies. If you are trying to ignore your child’s tantrum and Grandma steps in and asks, “What’s wrong honey?” it will reinforce negative behavior. Work with other caregivers to develop a behavior plan that outlines which behaviors you plan to address with selective ignoring."
By Amy Morin, LCSW
Updated April 06, 2016