Reduce Attention-Seeking Behaviors by Ignoring

Ignore attention seeking behavior and it will go away.

mediaphotos / Vetta / Getty Images

Ignoring some of your child's misbehavior sounds a little absurd on the surface. After all, when you ignore your child's behavior, aren't you allowing them to get away with acting out? Not necessarily.

You should only ignore attention-seeking behavior. When you look the other way and pretend you can't hear, you're sending a message that says, "Your attempts to get my attention through misbehavior aren't going to work."

This type of ignoring is often referred to as "selective ignoring." It's an effective discipline strategy when combined with other discipline techniques such as praise, reward systems, and time out.

Why Ignoring Works

Kids will often go to great lengths to get attention. If they aren't getting positive attention, they often act out to get negative attention. Ignoring attention-seeking behavior shows them that whining, screaming, or begging won't get your attention, so they won't continue to try it.

Selective ignoring also teaches your child how to deal with their feelings in a socially appropriate manner. For example, instead of screaming and stomping their feet when they are upset, ignoring can teach them that they need to use their words if they want you to console them.

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 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 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 they are behaving, and ignoring 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. Look the other way, pretend you don't hear them and act as though their behavior doesn't annoy you.

You will know that your attempts at ignoring are effective if the behavior gets worse initially. When a child is not getting the response they want, they 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 attention again. For example, as soon as a temper tantrum stops, say, “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 them when you will ignore them and explain how they can regain your attention. Then, your child will be aware of the direct link between their 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.

Additionally, you're only going to ignore those behaviors for a brief period. Then, you're going to give your child plenty of attention for good behavior.

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.

Was this page helpful?