“Just ignore him when he acts like that. He’s just doing it to get attention.”
We’ve all heard this advice from fellow parents, pediatricians, and even parenting experts. Your toddler or preschooler drops to the ground and is lost in the throes of an epic tantrum, and you’re advised that the best course of action is to completely ignore him until he shapes up.
Unfortunately this is flawed logic, and many well-meaning advice givers are actually offering you poor direction. Here’s why:
Kids Naturally Seek Attention
It is entirely natural for our children to want our attention. Children thrive when they have loving, attentive caregivers. In fact, we know that babies will die without affection and touch, even if their needs for nutrition, sleep, and sanitation are met. Evolutionarily speaking, our children’s lives depend on their ability to motivate at least one adult to consistently give them attention.
So when I hear advice to ignore a child who is attention seeking, I’m inclined to agree with the philosophy of Lawrence J Cohen, PhD, “I’m always amazed when adults say that children ‘just did that to get attention.’ Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to try to get it. Why not just give it to them?’ ”
Essentially, the solution to a situation where a child is pulling out all the stops for attention is to recognize the innate need being expressed and honor it. Recognizing a child’s need for connection and choosing to reject it certainly doesn’t make the need go away.
Toddlers Don’t Manipulate
Many parents assert that children are just trying to manipulate us with their tantrums. Rarely do they acknowledge that ignoring their children’s behaviors is in itself manipulative. We know children have a desperate need to connect, and choosing to ignore them means capitalizing on their instinctive drive to be near us in order to change their behavior. We assume they’re attempting to manipulate us, and it’s like we think we need to beat them to the punch, “Don’t try to manipulate a manipulator, young one!”
Except that’s not what they’re doing. They are small people with big emotions just asking for help the only way they know how. Ignoring them doesn’t communicate that we’re onto their scheme, it just sends them the clear message that we will only provide them with the positive reinforcement of our love when they behave in ways of which we approve.
Behavior is Communication
Marshall Rosenberg, the visionary behind Nonviolent Communication, explains that behaviors like tantrums are the outward display of a need that is being unmet. Simply stated, children are more than their behaviors. They are complete beings with thoughts and feelings. When we reduce them to their behaviors, we are dismissing the need driving the behavior.
Therefore, we can view our children’s behavior as their clearest form of communication. They don’t yet have the skills to simply state, “I need your attention right now,” and they don’t learn better communication by being ignored.
Furthermore, just because behavior is communication doesn’t mean we can know with absolute certainty which need is going unmet. How can we presume to know why a child engages in a specific behavior? How do you know it’s “just to get attention?” Often we don’t even think to ask.
Sometimes a child doesn’t specifically need attention but rather to be understood. We would do well to ask ourselves, “ Am I expecting a young child to behave in a way that’s beyond her maturity and capability?” or “Is he tired or hungry?” or “Has it been a particularly stressful or stimulating day?”
I love what Jennifer Lehr has to say about our obsession with behavior, “Behavior, I came to realize, is a language. A universal language. It’s not something that is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather it’s something to be understood. My job as a parent wasn’t to try to control my children’s behavior as much as it was to understand it…Punishing behavior with a time-out or another form of discipline may, in the moment, scare a child into ‘behaving himself,’ but it won’t help address the underlying feelings and needs driving the behavior.”
We Want to Foster Respect & Connection
Unfortunately, ignoring behaviors we find distasteful comes at a cost. A preoccupation with behavior means we probably aren’t curious about our children’s thoughts and feelings when they’re upset. It also means we are choosing not to connect when our children are distressed.
You might roll your eyes at this, thinking, “Thoughts and feelings? She wants a cookie, how deep of a discussion can we really have?” True enough, a two-year-old’s thoughts may not seem important to us. However, it’s probably of value to a two-year-old to have someone listen to and acknowledge her feelings, even if they seem trivial. And don’t we want our children coming to us with their thoughts and feelings as they grow and mature? We can’t expect them to trust us if we’ve chosen to ignore them rather than listen to them in the past. As C.M. Wallace explains, “If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”
For most parents, creating a close relationship with their children is a high priority. However, the strategy of ignoring certain behaviors likely doesn’t move us in the direction of connection. Essentially it communicates, “I care about what you do, not who you are.” Ignoring meltdowns is akin to giving a spouse the silent treatment, something I sincerely doubt any couples therapist would endorse.
When I consider how I’m interacting with my son, I try to check in with myself, “Would I treat an adult who I admire this way?” Let’s say my husband walks through the door after a difficult day. He approaches me completely inconsolable. In response, I simply walk away. He would probably feel awful. He might feel invalidated, humiliated, and disrespected.
If, however, he had a bad day and was taking it out on me, I would be well within my rights to say, “I can tell you’re having a bad day. I want to support you, but I can’t do that when you take it out on me.”
It’s possible to set boundaries with respect while preserving the relationship, and I see no reason why children are less deserving of dignity simply because they are smaller and more at our mercy.
I have no doubt that parents who follow the advice to “just ignore” their children do so because they think it’s the most appropriate strategy. They are following the advice of recent generations of experts and managing their children’s meltdowns the best way they know how. I’m confident it’s done with the very best of intentions. However, as Alfie Kohn reminds us, “Bad things done for good reasons aren’t nearly as helpful as good things done for good reasons.”