Ignoring bad behavior in children, when and when not to do it…

boy eating ice cream cone

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Many parenting authorities will advise you to ignore bad behavior in children such as tantrums, claiming that the child just wants attention and giving it to him in that moment will encourage him to behave that way in the future, to get the attention he craves. The logic is the child will think, “I want attention and my way. Last time I made a terrible tantrum I got what I wanted, therefore now I am going to fabricate and entire tantrum, that is purposely force myself to behave terribly, to get what I want.” This is truly an erroneous and ridiculous understanding of human behavior. It also takes a very cynical view of children, that they are cunning, manipulative and even malevolent, that tantrums come from their cholce to be bad. In addition, children rarely remember the last tantrum when they are about to have a new one, they are usually too overwhelmed to remember and be calculating. Therefore in my view, and in my clinical experience, the truth is far from this. A child who tantrums or misbehaves is completely innocent. Such behavior represents precisely a lack of planning and control, not a crafty diabolic exercise of manipulation. They are just reacting to their frustrations, unfulfilled emotional needs, and feelings of powerlessness. During times of misbehavior such as tantrums, the last thing a child needs it to be ignored, they desperately need our full and dedicated attention in those moments. It is our job as parents to provide a child with all his needs, such as food, clothing shelter, education and healthcare, but there is another need that is even more important: happiness. All children desperately need happiness several hours a day, every day. Getting any less that they need is intolerable, worse than a lack of food. A child with his need for happiness unfulfilled is in no way spoiled! In most instances when a child misbehaves, he is really crying out, “My essential need for happiness is going unfulfilled! I cannot tolerate even another moment without that happiness and it’s your job to provide it and you’re not doing your job! My intense craving for happiness has driven me to tantrum and misbehave!” For a detailed discussion of how happiness fixes misbehavior, click here.

Fulfill the need for happiness ahead of time!

girl contently laying on a tree limb

Therefore the solution to misbehavior is to find out why the child is unhappy and to fulfill that need, be it physical or emotional. Now attention is a powerful way of providing happiness to a child, they revel and bask in the glow of the warmth of our gaze. Who could think that the solution to lack of happiness would be to ignore them and create more unhappiness? Clinical experience shows that ignoring tantrums never works in the long run. Rather misbehavior is a sign that we must dedicate time and energy to fulfilling the child’s needs. By the way the best way to cure misbehavior is prevention. When you see the child is slightly unhappy or irritable and a tantrum may be brewing, it is your cue to swoop in and inject happiness into your child’s day, to shower him or her with attention, pleasure and engagement. Consistently making a child happy ahead of time will prevent all tantrums. A child who is going through conflict between his parents, bullying or other stressors has a happiness baseline that is even lower and will need extra attention, patience and kindness. Never fear that being kind to your child will spoil him! The opposite is true, children act spoiled because their emotional needs and need for happiness is going unfulfilled. See my important post: How not to spoil your child, here.

When should I be ignoring bad behavior in children?

Therefore never ignore a child as a disciplinary tool, as it always harms, and never helps. However sometimes under certain circumstances, it is good to ignore them. How so? If a child’s needs are basically being fulfilled at the moment, but he is just being annoying or troublesome in fulfilling them, the wise thing may be to ignore them to save your own sanity and avoid reprimanding. Let’s say a child has been singing loudly for a few minutes and it is annoying you. The wisest course of action would be to save your own sanity by ignoring the child as best as you can. This way you can avoid an unpleasant and conflict generating reprimand, as reprimands should generally be reduced as much as possible.

For a detailed discussion of the pitfalls of reprimands, click here.

Let’s say a child is being slightly disrespectful. This hurts, but the wisest course of action is to sidestep the insult and ignore the child, which prevents an escalation of a battle of wills, punishment, or conflict. Let’s say a child is trying to get his sibling in trouble, to get you to intervene on his side in a conflict. The wisest path is not to take the bait and create an imbalance of power, ignore the complaint and let them work out their conflict on their own. Alternatively you can restate each party’s grievances to each other but without judging. The rule is never ignore when needs need to be fulfilled, rather fill the need, but ignore and tolerate mischief when it’s getting on your nerves but the children are otherwise happy.

girl smiling picking an apple

The same thing goes for infants and toddlers. Never ignore a needy baby!

Sometimes tantrums can be a healthy way for a child to express his feelings, and you don’t want to interrupt that process. If a child is overwhelmed by frustration a tantrum may be the only way he can express how he feels, so you want to be tolerant and empathetic, that is show the child you know how he or she feels. “Wow, I see you’re really frustrated! It can be so painful when you can’t do what you want. I wish I could fix it for you right now! I’m so sorry you have to feel that way. Come here let me give you a hug."

For great tips on defusing tantrums, click here.

Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download on of my informative free reports. If you are experiencing challenges ignoring bad behavior in children, and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!