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Positive parenting: ignoring children’s misbehaviour

As parents, the most powerful tool we have in our parenting toolbox is our attention. Children tend to repeat behaviour that gets our attention. So, logically, doing the opposite and ignoring children’s misbehaviour ought to mean that they are less likely to repeat that behaviour.

Ignoring children’s misbehaviour is certainly a powerful positive parenting strategy. But it needs to be used wisely. Here’s a quick guide to when ignoring misbehaviour works best and when not to do it.

Ignoring misbehaviour works really well when children are young

ignoring children's misbehaviour Very young children don’t have the language skills to understand complex explanations as to why they should/shouldn’t do something. But they are particularly prone to repeating behaviour that gets their parents’ attention. Just think of the toddler who keeps going back to press their nose against the television (with a big grin on their face) no matter how many times they are told “No!”. Ignoring a toddler’s or pre-schooler’s minor misdemeanours can be a very effective way to discourage them. It can also work well with older children who are behaving just like toddlers!

Ignoring misbehaviour works best for minor issues

Ignoring is a great parenting strategy for tackling annoying but harmless behaviour – particularly if you suspect that your child is using that behaviour to get a reaction. Things like whining, saying rude words, making silly faces or throwing themselves on the floor with a wail because you’ve said they can’t have the smartphone…

Implemented in an empathetic way, ignoring can be really helpful for drawing boundaries and supporting emotional regulation. Perhaps say something like “I can see you’re disappointed because you wanted the phone, but now is not phone time. I’m going to put it away and wait until you are ready to play.”

Ignoring children’s misbehaviour only works if you see it through

If you are going to ignore behaviour, you have to do it completely and all the way until it stops. Explain what you are going to do and what you are waiting for. Then, remove your attention elsewhere. Draw yourself up to your full height and keep your eye level high. Turn and walk to the other side of the room (as long as your child is somewhere safe). No matter how much noise they make, keep ignoring it. Take deep breaths and go to that happy place in your head to help yourself stay calm.

Your child may get louder or escalate their behaviour to try and get your attention. It’s important that you keep ignoring them and don’t react for as long as the behaviour goes on. If you start ignoring and then stop because they get louder that teaches children they just need to get louder to get your attention.

As soon as they stop the misbehaviour, give them back your full attention and praise them for doing the right thing.

Remember to praise the right behaviour

Ignoring children’s misbehaviour works best when contrasted with lots of praise for the right behaviour. Remember to pay attention to the behaviour that you do want your children to repeat.

Ignoring misbehaviour is harder when people are watching

Nobody finds it easy to manage difficult parenting situations under the scrutiny of strangers (or, indeed, of judgemental friends and family). Ignoring children’s misbehaviour can be stressful so it might not be the best parenting strategy to choose if you are out and about. If you are confident to ignore a tantrumy toddler in Tesco (who wanted a donut!), you have my full backing – most people will realise what you are doing and why you are doing it. But if the tutting of unsympathetic onlookers is likely to push you over the edge then choose a different strategy for those occasions (see Managing difficult behaviour when you are out and about for ideas)..

Don’t use ignoring for serious issues

If your child is being aggressive or hurting someone or themselves, don’t ignore it. Step in and manage that behaviour actively. If you start off ignoring and then your child’s behaviour escalates into something more serious, step in and manage that calmly in a non-dramatic, low attention way.

Help children deal with their emotions

Good enough parenting is about understanding children’s needs and their capacity – so that we can support their development. Parents don’t have to meet a child’s every need (if we did, they wouldn’t extend their own capacity to manage themselves). And we certainly shouldn’t be giving them that phone (or biscuit or donut) every time they want it. But, importantly, we must also only fail to meet children’s needs in ways they can handle. If a young child is stressed, anxious or distressed, they need the reassuring presence of a caring adult. Ignoring is not appropriate when a child is overwhelmed with emotions beyond what they can manage.

Often children’s big behaviour is driven by big emotions that they haven’t yet learnt to cope with. We can help children learn to manage their feelings with some empathetic listening skills and by talking to them about feelings (storybooks are a good way to do this with young children). Or try these tips for emotional tweens and teens.

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2 responses to “Positive parenting: ignoring children’s misbehaviour”

  1. Bea says:

    There used to be a sign on my kids pre-school wall “Whatever you pay attention to you’ll get more of” – it really stuck in my head because it is so true. Thanks for this article, I really like things that are logical, calm and thought through like this. I will be sharing with our Baby College customers too 🙂

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