Attending and Ignoring as a Parenting Strategy
As a coach and therapist I thought I knew all about the power of “attending and ignoring,” the topic of a positive parenting seminar I attended last fall. Just as I started to tune out, the instructor offered an example of how to use “attending and ignoring” to change and eliminate whining behavior in our kids. My attention perked up.
My 6 year-old daughter had developed persistent whining tendencies. Whenever she wanted something, or we made a simple request of her, she whined with dramatic refusals, stomping, crying, etc. My typical parental responses weren't helping; in fact, they were playing a big role in the problem. On a daily basis you could hear in our house, “Stop using that voice. Please stop whining. Stop Complaining!! Where are you manners?!!” Eventually, I was yelling at her like a hammer flailing without a plan.
Realizing I had created a whiny monster, I decided to give the lesson from The Yale Parenting Center seminar a serious try. For two weeks, I committed to not responding when presented with whining or complaining. I explained the plan and asked my husband and other daughter (two years older) to get on board with looking away and ignoring the whining.
How Does Ignoring Change Whining Behaviors?
I feared both kids would interpret my lack of reaction as approval. My initial reaction to this practice of ignoring was something I had heard many times from parents in my practice. I felt like the silence condoned the behavior. I had to trust that they would “get it” and interpret my walking away as disapproval, or a mini-consequence.
I knew her bad behavior was likely to increase at first as she tried harder to get my attention with the old tactics. So while I grasped the long view, it felt strange not to respond to her cries of need and distress. It felt weird that I wasn't doing anything. Then I started to feel a little mean, withholding my attention like that. I reminded myself that emotional regulation skills were critical to her development. I could try hard to control my emotions if it would help her learn to control hers.
Thankfully the second piece of the plan came a little more naturally, and with it, the positive change in behaviors I was hoping to achieve. In positive parenting, which kids with ADHD and related conditions respond especially well to, we're taught to think of the “positive opposite” of the behavior we don't want. Then, when we see progress toward what we do what, we respond with attention and specific praise to change the behavior. Parents often forget to provide attention and specific praise to the behaviors they like, such as time kids play cooperatively together. It's more common to pay attention when the arguing starts, when something's not working.
With a little practice, when you identify the behaviors that need to be developed, parents can quickly become adept at responding with less frustration. Consider what children need to learn when they exhibit unwanted behaviors:
- Whining ⇒ use a normal tone of voice when making a request
- Excessively complaining ⇒ follow the routine we talked about, or understand sometimes plans change
- Impulsivity ⇒ pause and breathe before speaking / acting
- Too silly ⇒ please talk in a thoughtful way
- Too bossy / argumentative with sibling ⇒ take turns deciding, speak kindly to one another (like you would to a friend)
- Insensitivity ⇒ think about the other person's needs/feelings
- Listening poorly ⇒ look at me and stop what you're doing when I say I need to tell you something
- Sassy toward parents ⇒ Show cooperative actions and words, use a calm tone
- Quick to anger ⇒ Learn to use calming strategies when frustrated
With your primary goal of building one skill at a time, you can begin to use a magic feather – attending enthusiastically to all the small areas where you see progress. As you see pieces of the behavior you want, you can wave the wand of power that is your attention with your eye contact, a smile, a warm touch, a point on a whiteboard, a ticket in a jar to be used to earn privileges, or a comment like “wow, I am really impressed with how you got your homework supplies out when I asked.” When met with setbacks or sassiness that require your response, be sure to do so in a matter-of-fact, routine way, as if you couldn't be more bored.
Try It Out
Attending and ignoring techniques can be tougher in practice than we expect because they sometimes go against our natural parenting tendencies. Some parents may find specific praising of progress to feel unnatural, like coddling. Other parents may feel uncomfortable being unresponsive, especially to a very persistent child.
Some kids, like my daughter, want and need lots of our attention. If parents are easily engaged in negative emotional reactions, the child develops a habit of securing attention in this way. Research studies and my own experience lead me to confidently recommend the two-week challenge if you are experiencing behaviors in the annoying category. Your attention is light and easy to wave once you get the hang of it. It is indeed your most powerful parenting tool.