Planned Ignoring as a Positive Way to Change our Children’s Undesired Behaviour

Sometimes parenting can be a little disheartening or simply exhausting. Last month I wrote about the importance of celebration as a way of positively reinforcing desired behaviour, but what about the times when it feels like we have nothing to celebrate. The times that nearly every parent faces when it feels like everything is a battle with our little (or big) darlings. The truth is that we may find ourselves stuck in a certain way of being or reacting to our children. Social Learning Theory’ – (Bandura 1971) offers the choice of changing the effect we have on others. Bandura proposed that all behaviour is learned and therefore can be ‘unlearned’. As we have discussed in previous articles the theory concentrates on increasing desired behaviour (by rewarding it) and decreasing undesired behaviour (by ignoring it). When parents ignore behaviours such as whining, teasing, arguing and swearing, the child gets no reward or ‘pay off’ and according to this theory such behaviours should change or lessen. Planned ignoring can be used very effectively when used together with positive reinforcement of desired behaviour. But what is ‘planned ignoring’ and how do we do it? Planned ignoring is when you, and preferably your partner, decide to choose specific behaviours you will not give your child any feedback for. Children look to get our attention whether it is positive or negative by behaving in ways that work to get the desired effect. Parents are often confused as to why a child will act in a way that they know infuriates their parents. Truth is they are children and their emotional development and most importantly brains are not yet mature enough to recognise the difference. This may be true of some adults too! Whether you are praising or shouting at your children you are for that moment giving them your full attention.

For any change we need to think carefully about what behaviours we want to target, and be consistent. This is why planning is important. Discuss and agree with your partner on behaviours you would like changed. Remembering some behaviours can obviously not be ignored. Start with just a couple of undesired behaviours or your child may become confused. Whilst the child is acting out the behaviour try to avoid discussion and eye contact with them. Physically move away from them but try to stay in the room. Be aware of your body language, try to be subtle in the ways you show disinterest. With younger children it may help to use distraction. Return to giving them your full attention once the undesired behaviour stops. And prepare to be tested. Undesired behaviour may increase for a while or a new tactic of using it when you are in company or in the supermarket may be tried. This of course is the ace up every kids sleeve but don’t be swayed. Be consistent and guess what the people that matter will understand (especially if they are parents themselves) and if you care about their opinion take time to explain out of earshot of your child. It can be valuable if you can involve other caregivers, family or grandparents.

Most importantly don’t forget to celebrate the desired behaviour when it returns. Positive attention like praise is worth five times more to a child than negative attention – they just need reminding of the fact and so do we.


Lynn Frank is a coordinator for Passage, the Parent Support Group for the English-speaking community in Luxembourg. If you would like to know more about our work contact us at