“Why do I have to ignore my child?!”

By Denise Bennett

Have you ever heard your BCBA encourage you to “just ignore it”?  The first time you heard those words did you cringe a little bit?  Maybe the words, “That’s my kid.  I’m not ignoring my kid!” ran through your head.  It’s likely you’re not alone.  However, this is a misconception that might be keeping some hesitant parents from following through with a highly effective strategy.  Let’s break it down a bit.

The basic rule of thumb is always to ‘ignore the behavior not the child’.  No one’s suggesting you ignore your child.  In fact, any appropriate behaviors (communication, cleaning up, putting something back they weren’t supposed to take, etc…) should get tons of your attention – praise, hugs, kisses, tickles, you name it!  Only the undesirable behaviors get “ignored.”  

Well what’s the point?  Sometimes something as insignificant or seemingly harmless as making eye contact or just glancing over in their direction is enough to keep a tantrum or repeated requests for another cupcake to keep coming.  Sometimes the things we think we’re doing to get these unwanted behaviors to stop seem to work wonders in that moment, but the effect may only be temporary.  If it pops back up tomorrow -  this strategy might not be as effective as you thought.

Typically the procedure known as planned ignoring is suggested for problem behaviors that continue because of comments (however small), eye contact, pats on the back, kind words meant to help them calm down or even scolding - essentially all various forms of attention.  It may seem hard to believe that telling them sternly to stop doing something would make it worse but sometimes that’s actually the case.   

Just imagine for a moment you’re in a disagreement with a spouse or co-worker and you both get agitated.  Maybe you raise your voice and start fighting.  What would happen if they just stopped fighting with you or better yet didn’t start in the first place?  How would you respond if you were trying to argue but no one was arguing back?  If you were yelling and the other person was calmly looking back or maybe not even looking at you?  Chances are pretty good you might feel even more infuriated.  This is a sign that you’ve come to expect the struggle and now that feels normal -  maybe even a little comfortable.  This is likely because in the past ‘I yell, they yell’.  But what if they never fight back?  Then what?  You probably stop.  And in the future you’re probably going to try a different tactic to communicate.  No one wants to be caught yelling by themselves.

    A couple of suggestions to make ignoring much more effective:

  • Try to demonstrate what you DO want to see from your child so they know how to correct it.  For example, if crying to get an extra cookie or to get to the toy that is just out of reach at Target is their go to response, state calmly, “I want a cookie” or “help” and repeat this model until they copy you.  If possible, as soon as they do so immediately follow through with their request and get in there with smiles and praise.  Let this be the most effective way for them to get what they’re looking for.  
  • Identifying situations ahead of time where you often see the behavior can be very helpful.  Whenever possible be ready to either demonstrate what they should do or help them by gently prompting their body if necessary.  Be on the look out for any and all opportunities to teach the behavior you want before the behavior you don’t want appears.  

The most important thing to remember here is consistency.  If an unwanted behavior is working with one individual it is likely everyone’s going to be deal with it.  Before trying a new tactic, make sure everyone will be equally involved - getting a reaction from one person for a behavior will cue your child that this behavior still works, so they will continue to try it with everyone.

Ignoring can mean a lot of different things.  Not sure what, when, where or why this is relevant to use with your child?  Ask your BCBA!  They are an excellent resource to help you navigate what and when to ignore, and how to do realistically do it!  They can clarify why this will be helpful and provide additional guidance to ensure everyone feels comfortable following through.  The goal is to keep the entire team on the same page.  You should always be clear on how and why any procedure is being used and confident to carry out when the therapists aren’t around.