The pattern seems as predictable as the morning sun. Your kid does something that annoys you, like tapping a pencil repeatedly or dropping food on the floor. You try everything to stop it. You correct and nag and give him a time-out, but nothing works. Sound familiar?
It may seem as though your children act out on purpose, but they’re just being kids. Their job is to test limits, learn, and develop. Yours is to guide, love, and nurture. It’s natural to feel that you need to do something to change behavior. But in my work as a family coach, I’ve seen that the way parents react often makes things worse. When you correct and discipline your kids, it can create a battle of wills that leaves you exhausted and out of tools.
That’s why I recommend a different approach: Overlook minor misbehaviors (those that don’t put your child or someone else at risk) and ignore him until he quits. I know that may sound crazy. Parents typically think there’s no way this will work. Then they try it and the magic starts.
We’ve been taught never to ignore a child, but kids are masters at getting our attention. They’ve learned from a young age to whine, cry, and negotiate to get what they want. They know these behaviors are inappropriate. But any attention —even if it’s negative—is a plus to them. When you refuse to engage bad behavior, it lets your children know by your actions that what they’re doing isn’t acceptable and won’t be rewarded.
When your kids aren’t acting up, you can let them know your expectations. And continue to provide logical consequences for behavior that’s dangerous or harmful. However, the benefits of ignoring unwanted behaviors are massive—even though it takes practice and inner strength. Withhold your attention and these behaviors will largely disappear. The bonus: You won’t have to play referee all the time. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?
Before you start this new strategy, identify what irritates you the most. For me, it’s the insistence on negotiating after I’ve already said no. My daughter asks for dessert and I say, “Not today.” Then she asks ten more times in ten different ways (pleading daughter, nice daughter, desperate daughter, angry daughter) because she’s learned that tactic sometimes works. It’s my trigger and she knows it.
When kids deliberately push your buttons, you might be tempted to respond angrily. But I’ve figured out how to control the impulse, and so can you: You pretend. You act like you don’t care if your kid runs around the house naked. You fool her into believing it has no effect on you when she dumps her toy bin in protest of a time-out. And you put on a poker face if your child refuses to eat the spaghetti he asked for three minutes ago.
Deep down, you’re probably frustrated and tired. You might feel mad enough to raise your voice and say, “Why don’t you listen?” But if your kid hears that, you’re toast. She’ll know that her behavior works, and she’ll keep it up.
We must learn how to ignore because it goes against our instincts. If someone shouts, you turn your head. If someone calls your name, you answer. Pretending not to notice won’t feel natural, but it’s essential to get the behavior you want. Of course, you’ll still hear and see your child, but you won’t engage him. This means you can’t make angry faces, stare with wide eyes, or make annoyed sounds. Instead, go to a happy place in your head and stay there until his behavior stops.
It’s perfectly okay to turn your back on your child or walk away. You can even go to another room (though you must still be able to hear him). Then act busy. Pick up a magazine to flip through. Sing a song. Clean the house. Pack your bag for work. Make dinner. Just don’t make eye contact. You can use your peripheral vision to keep track of him, but don’t react.
When your child sees that you’re not paying attention, he may assume you didn’t see or hear him. This may cause him to ratchet up the behavior to be sure you notice it. Don’t take the bait! Once you’ve decided to ignore his actions, nothing he does or says should get you to interact with him. It’s like a game of bluff—one you have to win.
Once your child stops the annoying behavior, you should start to interact with him again. Ask about his day, offer to play with blocks or work on a puzzle together. When you reengage, be positive and enthusiastic, even if you don’t feel that way. You need to put your anger behind you and may have to fake it. Don’t discuss the behavior or explain why you ignored your child. The fastest way to help him move on is for you to move on too.
From Ignore It! by Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW, published by TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW.