Jack, aged 3, was bored. His Mum was in a coffee shop, and Jack decided to push his scooter repeatedly into her foot. His Mum asked him to stop and then ignored him. A gentleman in the queue to buy coffee said aloud ‘He needs a good smack’ whereupon a lady who was also queuing turned to him and said ‘That mother is doing the best thing she can do –ignoring him’. The impressed lady asked if she could sit with Jack’s Mum, much to her delight.  Jack sat up at the table to have his drink, and his Mum told him she was pleased he had remembered how to behave properly.

A Mum on my parenting course recounted this true story a few weeks ago. She admitted that she was not entirely sure what to do in the situation, and was feeling quite vulnerable. But she had never been publicly applauded for her parenting before and was so grateful for the wise lady who corrected the gentleman in the queue. The man’s thoughtless remarks could have really upset her.

Firstly we need to choose one or two behaviours we want to reduce. It could be petty arguments or teasing between siblings, using a whiny voice or having a tantrum. Ignoring should not be used for behaviour where property or people are harmed. Or something that we know we will not be able to ignore, such as children making a noise when we need them to be quiet. We reinforce the actions we pay attention to, so we need to combine the ignoring by giving positive attention to the behaviour we do want.

If we can, we need to be subtle when ignoring our children – turning away slightly, avoiding eye contact or just leaving the room. A sigh or over-dramatic gesture will let our child know that their behaviour is having the desired reaction. We can teach other adults or older children to ignore the behaviour too. When our child is whining or having a tantrum we should avoid a discussion with our child. To be effective we also need to be consistent, otherwise, our children will just learn to escalate their behaviour to get our reaction. And they will test us initially to get our attention.

It is also not a good strategy to threaten to leave our child in a shop or public place. This causes a stressed child to feel frightened, but they soon learn that we are waiting around the corner. Once our child realises this they can call our bluff and it puts us, as parents, in a powerless position.

If we can sense that their behaviour is about to worsen we can try to redirect our children to do something else. Such as suggesting a walk or bike ride if children start to bicker with each other. Or noticing an interesting toy when our child is beginning to lose their temper.

As soon as they stop the behaviour we want to reduce it is good to engage them and return our attention. It is especially important to tell them if we notice them talking in a pleasant voice, being nice to their brother or sister or keeping their anger under control.

So there is a time and a place for using ignoring along with a whole host of other parenting techniques. It is useful for helping to reduce a couple of behaviours but should be used only for a few minutes. Giving positive attention as soon as the behaviour stops will help our children learn how to get a good response, and the behaviour we choose to ignore will gradually reduce.

And I just want to finish with one more story. Another Mum on the course described leaving Ikea, after a shopping trip for some fold-up chairs. Her three-year-old son wanted her to buy a toy and had a major tantrum just before they reached the check-out. The Mum sat on one of the chairs she was holding, got a book out of her bag, and pretended to read, much to the amusement of the other shoppers. Eventually, her son looked up and stopped wailing, whereupon she said, ‘Oh, I’m so pleased you’ve finished, shall we go now?’ Her slightly shocked son got up and trotted along beside her whilst she chatted to him and told him of all the interesting things they would do when they left.  She said afterwards how proud she had felt, as she had remained calm and in control and had avoided the whole day being ruined by losing her temper in an embarrassing situation.

Do you have any interesting stories where ignoring worked for you? Or is it something you may try occasionally?

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

Need help now? Ready to explore whether investing in some tailor-made parenting sessions would be right for you and your family? Book your FREE 20-minute call with Elizabeth here