How to Decrease Undesirable Behavior by Ignoring
The answer is: Extinction. This is the scientific term for what we will be describing here. What it simply means is:
- Determine WHY your child is engaging in this misbehavior (What reinforcer is he/she trying to obtain?)
- Do not provide that reinforcer when the behavior occurs
We’ve covered this topic in other blogs (Read: Extinction: What Is It and How Do We Use It?), so in this post we are focusing only on the ignoring aspect of extinction.
Often, this strategy is called “ignoring” because frequently our children are trying to access our attention through their misbehavior, and so the process of extinction involves NOT providing attention when the behavior occurs.
There is more to it than that, but for the sake of ease, we’ll stick with ignoring.
We’ve mentioned this in other posts, but we should state it again. When we talk about the strategy of decreasing undesirable behavior by ignoring, it is important to understand that the behavior is ignored, NOT the child.
This can mean that when your kid hits you, you can ignore the hitting (don’t talk about it, don’t react, just carry on doing exactly what you were doing), and still continue to engage with your child as you were doing before the hitting occurred.
A popular misconception about using extinction is that we are letting our kid “get away” with the misbehavior; that by not having a large reaction, we are somehow telling our kid that their conduct is acceptable.
However, NOT providing attention to the behavior is SO much more powerful of a consequence than reprimanding our child.
Oftentimes, negative attention of reprimanding actually strengthens misbehavior rather than weakening or decreasing it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parent tell me, “I can’t not address that behavior.” And what I will say is, “You’ve most likely been addressing that behavior for a while now. Have you seen an improvement?” Almost always, the answer is no.
If the goal is to teach our children to have better self-control and to stop engaging in the problematic behavior, then let’s rely on the science of behavior to make that change, rather than what may “feel right,” especially if that hasn’t been working.
*NOTE: There will always be behaviors that cannot be ignored, and we are not encouraging you ignore dangerous behavior. If your child is at risk of harming himself or others with his actions, it is prudent to respond to keep everyone safe.