Parenting Skills-Part 2 How to Reduce Unwanted Behaviors by Removing Attention

The first installment of this series discussed the benefits of flipping the balance of the attention we provide our children, trying to provide more positive attention for the desirable behaviors they perform and giving them less attention for the undesirable behaviors we want to reduce or eliminate. It focused specifically on ways that we can increase positive attention provided to children for desirable behaviors. If you missed the first article go check it out!

This installment starts focusing on ways to reduce the attention provided to children for undesirable behaviors, which will help in actually reducing the unwanted behaviors!

Active Ignoring

While the series will discuss several ways to reduce undesirable behaviors, the first covered will be what we call ‘active ignoring.’ This is addressed first because in many instances, active ignoring is what should be tried first to reduce unwanted behavior in children. Remember how we are trying to reduce the attention we give to children’s undesirable behaviors? Active ignoring is exactly that – not giving attention to undesirable behaviors that we want to eliminate. Active ignoring works best for behaviors that are attention seeking. Another way to think about the target behaviors for this intervention is behaviors we would often consider annoying or obnoxious. Behaviors that respond well to active ignoring include yelling, whining, back talk, crying that is done just for attention, etc. Before we further consider how to use active ignoring, it is important to note that active ignoring should NOT be used for behaviors that are dangerous, such as behaviors that are aggressive or destructive. This series will address other discipline strategies designed for those sort of behaviors.

So, let’s use whining as an example. If we choose to start using active ignoring to reduce our child’s whining, then we will actual ignore the child every time he whines. This means not looking at him, touching, talking to him, scolding him, etc. so that we are not rewarding this behavior by giving him the attention he is looking for. Ignoring can be difficult to do for parents. These behaviors may be irritating or embarrassing to us. However, once we have started to ignore a behavior, it is very important to be consistent. The child’s behavior will get worse before it gets better. This is what we call an extinction burst. I like to use the example of a vending machine to explain this.

Let’s say you’ve put your money in the vending machine for a bag of chips, but your bag of chips doesn’t fall down. You’re used to chips falling when you press the button. So when it doesn’t work, what do you do? You may press the button harder, hit the side of the machine, etc. Children will do the same thing. They will escalate and vary their behavior because they are used to getting attention for whining, or whichever behavior we are ignoring. However, if adults are consistent in ignoring those actions, after this extinction burst, there is typically a sharp reduction in the child’s misbehavior. But again, this depends on our consistency. Let’s say the child is increasing the disruptive behavior in the extinction burst, and we just cannot take it and scold him. Then we have shown him that if he escalates his behavior, that will get our attention, and he will do it again in the future. Ignoring can work very well in reducing unwanted behaviors without having to use more negative forms of discipline, but only if we are consistent.

Labeled Praises for Positive Opposites

Another important feature of active ignoring that helps it work so well is pairing it with labeled praise for positive opposites. Let’s break that down. Remember Family, behaviorslabeled praises from the first installment? Labeled praises are what they sound like – praise we give to children that tells them very specifically what we liked about what they did, such as “Great job walking next to me,” etc. When using active ignoring, we want to look for opportunities to praise the opposite of the behavior that we do not want. For example, if we are ignoring yelling, we would praise the child’s use of quiet voice, calm voice, inside voice, etc., whatever language is used in your home. The child using his inside voice is the positive opposite of the behavior we are trying to reduce, yelling, in that it is the more acceptable alternative to yelling. We want to praise these positive opposites at every opportunity we can. Any time you notice your child engaging in the respective positive opposite, give him a labeled praise or other positive attention. It is especially important to give a labeled praise for a positive opposite after you have been ignoring an unwanted behavior of your child’s. For example, if your child has been yelling for two minutes and you have been ignoring it, as soon as he stops, you should direct your attention to him and praise the positive opposite that he is now engaging in, “Thank you for using your inside voice.” Again, this helps children learn that we are not going to give them attention for unwanted behaviors anymore and shows them what actions they can engage in instead to get our attention.

More to Come

Look out for upcoming installments in this series! Future installments will continue to discuss research supported discipline strategies for young children. If you would like more information regarding these concepts and skills, are interested in applying these principles for older children, or are having significant difficultly managing your child’s behavior, consider calling the clinic to schedule behavior management therapy, in which a clinician can work with your family to implement these principles on an individualized basis.  

Several concepts were adapted from the empirically supported treatment Parent-Child Interaction Therapy created by Shelia Eyberg and Beverly Funderburk.