Children’s bad behavior can drive you up the wall. But what if the secret lay in ignoring that behavior? Several scientific studies suggest that ignoring misbehavior can help parents manage difficult behaviors and promote positive changes in their children’s behavior.
While dealing with bad behavior can be challenging, it is a natural part of child development: 2 year olds oppose everything, three year olds throw tantrums, four year olds whine, and five year olds begin to display defiant behavior.
In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of ignoring bad behavior, share some examples of how to use this technique effectively, and provide tips for implementing it in your daily routine at home.
Ignoring bad behavior in kids: an extinction behavior technique
Extinction behavior is a behavior modification strategy that involves withholding reinforcement for specific minor behaviors.
This strategy is based on the idea that when we ignore these behaviors (undesirable consequence), they eventually disappear.
Ignoring bad behavior is a strategy that works both for young and older kids. With younger kids, it can be particularly helpful to ignore minor behaviors which are often an attention-seeking attempt. By ignoring these behaviors, younger children learn the behaviors for which they will not receive attention and eventually stop them.
Ignoring bad behavior can also be an effective strategy with older children for certain behavior. As children grow older, they challenge your authority more regularly and adopt certain behaviors to provoke a reaction.
Ignoring behavior that is not physically or psychologically violent can not only help reduce it, it can also make it easier for you to avoid getting into a power struggle.
What science says about ignoring bad behavior
How to effectively deal with inappropriate behavior is a subject that has received much attention from the scientific world.
Several researchers who have attempted to analyze how ignoring bad behavior impacts that behavior have found that not only can this strategy help reduce misbehavior, it can also help parents to build healthier and happier relationships with their kids.
In one study, researchers sought to identify the specific parenting behaviors that shape child compliance. They therefore analyzed many different parental reactions (praise, verbal reprimands, time out, and ignoring behavior) to identify which of these were effective in obtaining compliance. The researchers found that briefly ignoring a child after non-compliance increased future compliance.
In a separate study, researchers sought to understand how mothers’ perceptions of their children’s behavior as positive or negative influenced behavior problems in childhood.
The study found that changing mothers’ perceptions of negative behavior, learning the behaviors to ignore, and introducing limit-setting, could help predict children’s behavior problems.
Tips from science on ignoring bad behavior
1) Practice selective ignoring
Experts say that ignoring minor disruptive behavior can be more effective that reprimanding or punishing kids, and that when you pay attention to minor behavior, you actually increase the chances of that behavior being reproduced.
They say that using selective ignoring, which means adopting a deliberate strategy to ignore certain unwanted behaviors, can help reduce their frequency and intensity.
Selective ignoring is thought to work because when children fail to receive attention for certain behavior, they learn that those behaviors are an ineffective way of gaining attention or receiving what they want.
Examples of the minor and attention-seeking behaviors that can be successfully ignored include:
1. Whining or complaining
2. Interrupting conversations
3. Mild teasing or name-calling
4. Tattling or minor rule-breaking
5. Pouting or sulking
6. Fidgeting or tapping
7. Mild tantrums or meltdowns
That said, selective ignoring can only work with minor behavior. In other words, there are behaviors that cannot be ignored. This strategy should not be used for harmful or dangerous behaviors.
2) Use positive reinforcement
Simply ignoring bad behavior does not teach your child about the positive behavior that is expected of them.
In other words, while ignoring that behavior can help eliminate it, simply adopting this strategy does not teach your child the behavior with which they should replace the unwanted behaviors.
Many researchers have found that using a positive discipline approach while ignoring bad behavior is more effective than simply ignoring inappropriate behavior.
Positive reinforcement, used alongside selective ignoring, can help eliminate your child’s unwanted behaviors. This is a scientific strategy based on operant conditions, meaning that when a behavior is followed by a desirable consequence (reinforcement), it is more likely to be repeated in the future.
Positive reinforcement refers to paying attention to the positive behaviors that you want to see and offering material or immaterial reinforcement for those behaviors. For example, if you decide to ignore whining, you should also respond to and praise your child’s behavior when they speak in a normal voice.
Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective discipline strategies that can help get rid of unwanted behaviors, including more serious behavior problems. This kit has all you need to adopt this strategy in a way that actually works.
Ignoring bad behavior: how to make the strategy work
1) Consistency is key
Bad behavior gets worse before it gets better. In other words, when you first begin to ignore your child’s unwanted behaviors, those behaviors are likely to increase.
This is because your child will double their efforts in an attempt to receive the reinforcement that was previously associated with those behaviors.
In the extinction behavior strategy, this is known as the “extinction burst”, and it refers to a sudden increase in the frequency, intensity, or duration of an unwanted behavior just before it disappears (extinguishes).
The only way to get around this is to consistently ignore your child’s behavior until they understand that that behavior will no longer be reinforced.
2) Choose what behaviors to ignore
The first step in using this strategy is to choose the behaviors to ignore. The next step it to decide the behaviors with which you would like your child to adopt.
Having a plan with clear expectations, the behaviors to ignore, and the behaviors to reinforce can make it easier to get rid of unwanted behaviors.
3) Separate the behavior from the child
Ignoring bad behavior does not mean ignoring your child. Communicate with your child and let them know the behaviors that are unacceptable. It is important to clearly communicate with your child and to avoid harmful techniques such as the silent treatment.
4) Patience pays
Ignoring bad behavior can be a difficult strategy to adopt, especially when you have become accustomed to always reacting to that behavior.
This strategy can also be a challenge because, as I mentioned earlier, bad behavior gets worse before it gets better.
In other words, there are no immediate results, and it is therefore important to be patient if you want to see a reduction in your child’ unwanted behaviors.
Although ignoring bad behavior can be a helpful strategy to manage unwanted behaviors in both younger and older children, it is a strategy that can only work for minor behavior issues.
Also, it is important to use other discipline strategies such as positive reinforcement to help your child adopt the behavior that is expected of them.