When your toddler has a meltdown in the supermarket or your 9-year-old whines constantly, it’s hard to ignore their behavior. Usually tantrums, complaining, pestering and whining push even the most patient parent’s buttons, leading frustrated parents to try anything to get the kid to behave or be quiet.
Dr. Catherine Pearlman, an Orange County family therapist, licensed clinical social worker and an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University, has a better idea: ignore it! Stay silent. Don’t get triggered or provoked. Let junior whine or cry. Eventually junior will realize all the whining in the world won’t get a reaction from mom or dad and he’ll stop and his behavior will improve.
Pearlman says that when children do not receive attention or rewards for misbehavior, they realize their behavior is ineffective and stop doing it. This is the idea behind Pearlman’s new book, released in August, “Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction.”
In an interview, Pearlman acknowledged it’s just plain hard to ignore a tantrum or incessant nagging. “Our natural instinct when someone is pushing our buttons is to respond,” she says. “Not reacting is way harder than reacting. Toddlers learn there is no point to throwing a tantrum when nothing becomes of it.”
She said a key reason she wrote “Ignore It!” — her first book — is because many parents are not enjoying parenting enough due to their child’s negative behaviors. “They are missing that joy. I want people to enjoy their parenting more and have tools to enjoy that behavior.” Ignoring bad behavior makes parenting less exhausting, too.
Here are six behaviors Pearlman says parents should ignore:
Whining and complaining. “All of that attention is part of the reward. Just pretend it doesn’t exist. It will go away.”
Attempts by your child to negotiate. Never negotiate! “Children negotiate because it works. It gets them five more minutes of playtime or one more episode of ‘Bob the Builder’ or that extra cookie. Any time we give in to negotiation, we encourage them to keep this up for everything. You are teaching them that negotiating is a part of life but (sometimes) negotiating is not a part of life, sometimes the rules are the rules.” With teens, Pearlman says seeking their input is OK — to a point. “We need to have them involved, but that still doesn’t mean they decide the rules.”
Anything meant to provoke you, like swearing and mean or disrespectful comments. “You can’t make the kid respectful … or disrespect you by punishing them or lecturing them,” she says. Respond and give attention to respectful behavior only. “If your kid says, ‘I hate you,’ it won’t make it better for you to respond. Turn your back.”
Pestering and begging. If your child asks you 10 times, “Can I have this toy?” ignore it, otherwise, “The kid has learned sometimes it takes 10 or 20 times and a parent gives in or compromises.”
Tantrums. If your 3-year-old melts down in the market, stand there with your cart and look busy, then re-engage them and go look at the eggs, she says. If it’s at a restaurant, take the kid outside, (so you don’t wreck the meal for the other diners,) let the child cool off outside while you remain silent, then go back inside when the tantrum is over.
Annoying behaviors like making odd noises. “Show them it has no effect on you and it will go away. Even if the kid still hums when he eats, ignoring it will make it less annoying over time.”
Finally, Pearlman says there are some behaviors that should never be overlooked, like crying from pain, fear or emotional distress; behaviors that are dangerous or would hurt the child or someone else; and illegal behaviors like stealing and vandalism.
Amy Bentley lives in the Inland Empire with her husband and teenage son.