Planned Ignoring: Dealing with Attention Seeking Behaviour

What Is Planned Ignoring and How Do You Use It?

Lockdown is proving difficult for many people, especially those of us who have small children. Spending large amounts of time at home can prove frustrating for children who may then act out in various ways to attract attention. This may be when you are trying to work, or cook dinner, or have a private conversation, which can be seriously stressful.

Planned ignoring is a strategy used on children who are exhibiting repetitive attention-seeking behaviours. It is a way of reducing and stopping attention-seeking behaviour with minimal effort and maximum outcome. This strategy should only be used for this type of attention-seeking behaviour.

Attention-seeking behaviour 

So what classifies as repetitive attention-seeking behaviour? This is usually an action that a child knows they shouldn’t be doing, and that they will do just to provoke a reaction from you. For example, your child likes throwing toys, and you have provided them with a basket for them to throw the toys into. Your child uses it and enjoys it, and you’re both happy. But maybe every now and then, they pick up a toy and give you a look, right before throwing it where they are not supposed to. Most parents are familiar with this look, as it signals your child is looking to provoke a reaction with behaviour they know won’t be appreciated. This is repetitive attention-seeking behaviour.

It’s important to note that repetitive attention-seeking behaviour is different from regular attention-seeking behaviour. The latter is a harmful product of being low on energy and of reaching out to you for help with something they are unable to do. Repetitive attention-seeking behaviour is a deliberate attempt at provoking a reaction, usually preceded by a special look in their eye. They’re testing you out, seeing how you will react.

Planned ignoring for repetitive attention-seeking behaviours

Planned ignoring focuses on ignoring the actions or behaviours the child indulges in, but not the child themselves. Let’s take the example of the bedtime routine. Your child wants attention, and knows they will get it if they get out of bed, again and again and again. Shouting at your child or engaging them in conversation while they are exhibiting this behaviour is actually just reinforcing this behaviour, and giving them the attention they want. If you simply take them by the hand and walk them back to bed without saying anything, or with a perfunctory “back to bed” and nothing else, they will very quickly tire of the game and give up, as they are not getting any attention from you.

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Ignore the behaviour, not the child

Planned ignoring does not mean ignoring your child, however. If your child is engaging in dangerous activity, like picking up a knife to get your attention, it’s unsafe to simply ignore this. Keep your eye on them, and remove the knife from their hand, reminding them it’s not safe. No shouting or arguing that gives them attention. If they give up the attention-seeking behaviour and move onto something else, like asking for food, of course you can engage with them. Ignoring them after they’ve moved on from the attention-seeking behaviour would send the wrong signal.

Impulse control and aggressive behaviour

Sometimes the repetitive attention-seeking behaviour can involve hitting, throwing, or biting. If this is directed at you as a parent, you can simply move away from them and ignore the behaviour. Keep your eye on them discreetly to look for signs they might hit you again, and move before they are able to.

If the receiver of this aggression is another child, focus your attention on the victim, but not the aggressor. Then come back to address the situation when everything has calmed down.

Attention is attention

The aim of the child when they are in this headspace is to get attention, no matter what kind of attention it is. Positive or negative, attention is attention. By reinforcing good behaviour and simply ignoring bad behaviour, you are showing your child the right way to get attention, and telling them that acting out won’t get them the results they want.

Consistency is key

Planned ignoring is a simple strategy for this specific behaviour, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Your instincts might tell you to give your child a telling off, as this seems most logical, and it’s hard to run against your instincts. But consistency is key, and once you’ve got the hang of the strategy, these behaviours will work themselves out. Some may take longer than others, depending on how long this behaviour has gone on, but as long as you are consistent in your implementation, you will see results.

Here’s to a less stressful and more productive, positive week with your family during this lockdown period, wherever you are. Try out this strategy and let us know how it worked for you.

Sources:

Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.

Dopamine, learning, and reward-seeking behavior.
Arias-Carrión, Óscar; Pöppel, Ernst
Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis, Vol 67(4), 2007, 481-488.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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