Ignoring Annoying Behavior

The second step on my discipline flow chart is to “pick your battles.” Ask yourself: Is their behavior really a big problem that needs serious consequences? Or is it just annoying? If it’s just annoying, just ignore it.

Let’s start with a few examples:

  • If you’re trying to get work done, and your child keeps coming over and whining about a snack, this is certainly annoying. But asking for food isn’t a discipline problem. You could just ignore the child until they ask politely, or you could give the child a hint: “it’s hard for me to understand you when you’re whining. If you used polite words and a nice voice,  I could hear you better.” Ignore them as long as they’re whining. As soon as you hear the polite request, respond to it.
  • If you’ve asked your child to pick up their toys, and they are doing so… but they’re stomping around and making faces while they do it, ignore the bad behavior, and turn your attention to what they’re doing well: “Thanks for getting all the Legos back in the tub.”
  • If your kids are squabbling in the backseat, instead of scolding for that behavior, just say “hey, I downloaded a great science podcast you’ll really like. When you’re ready to listen, I’ll turn it on.” Drive on, ignoring the bickering till they settle down, then turn on the podcast.

Your goal is to ignore the annoying behavior. As soon as you see positive behavior, focus on that. This ignoring method is a corollary to the attention principle. The more attention a child gets for a behavior, the more they will repeat it. So, play plenty of attention to positive behaviors. Ignore the ones you don’t want to reinforce. (Of course, if the bad behavior is significant, you’ll set limits and consequences… Ignoring is mostly for the things that are annoying little things, not the big stuff.)

All discipline is grounded in relationship.This technique does not work in a relationship where the child is often ignored or dismissed. But in a warm relationship where they regularly get attention for positive behavior, ignoring can be effective. It’s important to be clear that this ignoring is not intended as a rejection of your child, just of their current behavior, so it takes place in the context of a loving relationship.

Also, if your child is having strong feelings, don’t dismiss the emotions. Validate the emotions and turn attention toward the positive things they are doing to cope with them, but ignore annoying behaviors that result. For example, my son was begging for more screen time, and I said “I know you’re really sad about not being able to play more.” And “I see you’re looking through your books for something else to do.” But I didn’t acknowledge the repeated begging.

You can also teach your children to use their “ignoring muscles.” If their sibling or classmate is annoying them, they can ignore the other child. If they respond, the annoying behavior continues. If they don’t respond, the other child may give up.

When ignoring, you really want to be bland and poker faced and show no outward sign of noticing or caring about the bad behavior.  Don’t roll your eyes or sigh. Just think: If your daughter puts her fingers in her ears, turns her back and says “I’m ignoring you” and then turns back to make sure your son has noticed he’s being “ignored”, then he’s not really being ignored is he? He’s actually got all of her attention right now. It’s better to walk away and do something else as blandly as possible.

Test this method out, and comment to let me know what you think!

This is one of the many tools taught by the Incredible Years parenting program – check out their book for all the details!

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The Attention Principle

A key concept in the Incredible Years program is the Attention Principle. Children want attention from their parents, teachers and peers. They will repeat behaviors that get attention. They are less likely to repeat behaviors that are ignored.

Ideally, kids want positive attention: praise, rewards, smiles and snuggles. But, if they’re not getting enough of that, they will settle for any attention, even negative. When you see your child behaving well – being calm, cooperative, kind, taking turns, and sharing, reward that with positive attention. If your child is behaving badly, but in ways that aren’t directly harming anyone or anything, like whining or repeating the same words over and over or making vague demands rather than asking polite questions, ignore it.

I imagine this all sounds obvious and you’re probably thinking “yes, of course, that makes sense.” But I want you to think… is this what you’re actually doing?

When our children are calm, quiet, and well behaved, we often are relieved because it allows us to focus on all the other things we need to do: make dinner, pack a lunch, put the laundry away, or pay the bills. We may not say anything to them, because everything is going fine.

But then, if the siblings start squabbling, or the toddler starts jumping on the couch, or the whining begins, we jump right in with our full attention. “You two stop fighting!” “I told you not to jump on the couch – do I need to come over there?” “How many times do I have to say, no candy before dinner?”

If they’re really lucky, not only will they get your attention, but they might also get a bribe to stop the bad behavior (note that a bribe to stop bad behavior is pretty much the equivalent of a reward for bad behavior….) “If you stop fighting, I’ll get the art supplies out.” “Sit down on the couch, and you can watch YouTube.” “Fine, yes, have a piece of candy, then go play so I can get dinner finished.”

Giving attention (or even rewards) to bad behavior “feeds the monster.” The more that behavior gets attention, the more they will use it.

We do this not just with behavior, but also with emotions. We tend to say “I know you’re mad” or “I can see that makes you sad” a lot more often than we say “you’re calm and content now,” “you enjoy that book”, or “you’re proud of your work.” When noticing and validating difficult emotions, be sure to pair that with a focus on what they’re doing well in the moment. “I know you’re mad, but I saw you resist the urge to hit your brother and try to calm yourself down.” “I can see that makes you sad not to have a turn yet, but you’re doing a good job of playing with another toy while you wait.”

What can you do today to start shifting your attention toward what you want to see more of, and ignoring the behavior you’d like to see less of?