Is it OK to Ignore a Crying Toddler?

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    Have you ever been advised to ignore tantrums? Many parents hear at some point (often during the toddler years) that their children's negative behavior is simply "attention-seeking" behavior. 

    Parents also tend to hear that the best thing to do is simply ignore the tantrum, and it will naturally stop on its own.

    There are some flaws to this advice, however. While it's true that these behaviors aren't exactly pleasant to be around, ignoring the behavior is sometimes misinterpreted as ignoring the child (by isolating the child in time-out, for example).

    We should explore what happens when we ignore acting out. As parents, we also need to know what to do instead.

    Let's look at a few behaviors commonly described as attention-seeking:

    • When your child does things they "know" are off-limits, or does things we think they should know better than to do
    • Pushing boundaries
    • Whining, crying or acting out

    Are they really attention-seeking behaviors? It may help to reframe them. 

    A helpful perspective to remember is that if a child is wanting more attention, regardless of the form that takes, it's because they're craving connection with their trusted adult—attention-seeking is attachment- seeking.

    It's completely developmentally normal and healthy for a child to crave attention from their caregivers

    Sometimes, however, when a child is dysregulated by anxiety, by disruptions in routine or by other sources of confusion and uncertainty, they become unsure how to connect in a positive way. 

    In these moments, young children grasp for whatever "works"—whatever gets them the attention they need from us.

    Behavior like this is not a reflection of how "good" or "bad" a child is, of course. 

    Rather, it's a reflection of what behavior their brain is capable of manifesting in that moment. 

    A child who is whining or misbehaving isn't "bad"—they are longing to be seen. Ignoring a child who feels this way only exacerbates the problem.

    What Is Ignoring?

    Do not be fooled by the term ignoring. It is a very active process for the parent. Think of ignoring as the opposite of paying attention. 

    When you ignore your child, you do not neglect him or stand by while he misbehaves. 

    Instead, you take all your attention away from your child and his behavior. Ignoring usually helps stop behaviors that your child is using to get your attention. 

    This includes behaviors like throwing tantrums, whining, and interrupting. When you are ignoring, you do not look at your child or talk to him. 

    Ignore all protests or excuses to get your attention. The goal is to decrease behaviors you do not like or you want your child to stop.

    Why Should I Ignore My Child’s Misbehavior?

    Ignoring can help you reduce your child’s misbehavior. Remember that children love attention. 

    Negative attention like screaming or yelling can be rewarding to a child. This is true especially if you were not paying attention to your child before the misbehavior started. 

    By giving your child attention during tantrums, you may accidentally reward the behavior and increase the chance it will happen again. 

    When you ignore some misbehaviors, you can make it less likely your child will do the behavior again.

    What Misbehaviors Should I Ignore?

    Ignoring is usually most effective for behaviors like whining, crying when nothing is physically wrong or hurting, and tantrums. 

    These misbehaviors are often done for attention. If parents, friends, family, or other caregivers consistently ignore these behaviors, they will eventually stop.

    Your child may also misbehave in ways that are not meant for attention and put him in danger. 

    Dangerous and destructive behaviors should not be ignored. For example, if your child is hurting herself, hurting others, or destroying objects, she should not be ignored. 

    These misbehaviors should be stopped immediately. Other discipline and consequences such as time-out should be used.

    Reasons Not to Ignore Your Child’s Tantrums (and What to Do Instead)

    Here's what happens when we ignore attention-seeking behavior—and what to do instead.


    It Sends the Message to Our Kids That Our Love Is Conditional.

    Just as it can be confusing for an adult whose partner gives them the so-called "silent treatment," it's even more baffling for children when we simply don't respond to whatever they're doing. 

    What they know is what they observe: "My trusted adult isn't 'seeing' me. I've disappeared from their world." This perception may lead to feelings of isolation.

    While ignoring a child might "work" in some sense (they may stop performing the undesirable behavior), it can come at a very high cost to the child's self-esteem.

    What to Do Instead: Connect Before You Correct.

    A child often isn't mentally capable of hearing instruction or correction when they're acting out. 

    The part of the brain that handles those types of conversations is essentially in the "off" position until they can return to a calmer state.

    For parents, this means waiting out the storm. Stay present with your child physically and emotionally. 

    If the child will let you, hold them, invite them to your lap for a story or find another calming activity to help regulate their brain (and turn the rational part back "on"). This may take awhile and that's okay. 

    Let the emotions flow as much as they need to without invalidating the child's feelings or experience.

    Then, as soon as it's appropriate, describe what you saw: "You didn't like it when I said it was time to put away your toy cars, so you threw them all on the floor." 

    Keep judgment out of it; state only the facts. Remember, this isn't an "adult versus child" situation—it's both of you working together. 

    The child is not the problem; the behavior is. 

    To address the behavior, you might say, "We need to keep the floor clean so no one falls and gets hurt. Let's drive your cars back to their parking lot and keep everyone safe."

    When your child is emotionally grounded again, some playful parenting can help reinforce your connection in this moment of correction, helping the child feel "seen" and empowered to be part of the family again, rather than removed from it.

    This connection-based approach to attention-seeking behavior shows them that our love is unconditional. That's so much more important than any other message they could absorb.

    We Miss an Opportunity to Help Our Kids' Brains Grow.

    One of the tricky things about the common advice to ignore a child's negative behavior is that it doesn't specify a start or stop date, age-wise. 

    If you heard, for example, that I—a grown woman—was so upset that I fell on the floor crying and refused to get up, and my partner simply walked away without even acknowledging me, you'd likely find it quite awful.

    Of course, being an adult, I have a fully developed brain that's capable of communicating my needs to him. 

    Kids, however, don't have fully developed brains. In fact, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that regulates rational thought, among other things—doesn't fully develop until well beyond age 20.

    Further, children haven't had the opportunity to practice the skills that reflect emotional intelligence nearly as much as adults have. 

    They literally do not have the mental toolkit they need to reliably control their emotions.

    What does this mean for parents? 

    If an adult physically or emotionally ignores a child who's struggling, the child has no model of how to better handle whatever they're experiencing that's causing the negative behavior. 

    In fact, studies suggest ignoring a child expressing negative behavior actually produces a snowball effect: a child who's behaving poorly is more likely to keep behaving poorly rather than learn an alternative, and more positive, way to behave.

    What to Do Instead: Model Emotional Regulation.

    Rather than matching our child's upset with our own, or leaving the child to "figure it out" on their own, we can model that it's okay to have feelings and express them maturely. (We do this knowing, of course, that children are by definition less mature than we are.)

    When a child is engaging in attention-seeking behavior, we can help them cope by modeling a more appropriate way to manage their big feelings. 

    We can help retrain their brains to understand that when they do an undesirable behavior, they can come to us for support rather than wait for our "disappearance" or punishment.

    In learning to trust that we're an emotional safe haven for them, they can start to depend on us more consistently, and come to us proactively when they're struggling—rather than acting out to get our attention. 

    By doing this, we provide an emotional "how-to manual" for our kids to follow.

    Remember, we can (and should) set healthy boundaries about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. 

    What's more important for a child to know than "I can't do x," is "I can't do x, but I CAN do y." 

    If we consistently remind them of what the boundary is and what the better solution is, that knowledge can create new pathways in the brain.

    We Don't Address the Underlying Need.

    Experts agree that all behavior is communication. 

    Even when we don't like the way a child is expressing what he or she wants, the underlying need that they're trying to convey doesn't magically go away if we ignore it. 

    Perhaps the child is hungry or tired, or over- or under-stimulated. Or perhaps we've been on our phone too much and they're lonely. 

    Maybe they're simply seeking connection. (This is often the case.) 

    The child might not even know why they're acting the way they are, but they're still looking to their trusted adult to help them work through their big feelings.

    What to Do Instead: Remember That Needs Are Needs.

    If parents can solve the attention-seeking behavior with a hug, that's usually an easy fix. A snack?


    Doable (although we should be wary of "solving" problems by offering food every time). Some downtime or a game together? 

    Sure. Whatever it is, if we can find the root cause, it's much more effective to address that than to pretend it's not there—we risk sending the message to our child that their needs don't matter.

    Experienced mamas remember the "baby checklist:" When babies cry, it's usually because they're wet, hungry or tired. 

    A version of that mental checklist can be helpful to keep in mind for toddlers and preschoolers too:

    • Is my child too hot? Too cold?
    • Hungry?
    • Tired?
    • Sick?
    • Bored?
    • Needing gentle physical connection?
    • Craving downtime with less noise?

    When attention-seeking behavior crops up, think through the common causes of upset in younger kids—and address the needs, not the behavior.

    We know our kids best. With that knowledge (and our love), we can reframe attention-seeking behavior from having a negative connotation to a developmental expectation that we have of our children. 

    Of course they need our attention. They're children. What they want more than anything is to rely on our acceptance, our unconditional love and our consistent emotional presence.

    How Parents Make Temper Tantrums Worse

    While temper tantrums aren’t the worst behavior problem to deal with, frequent and unpredictable outbursts can definitely disrupt your day. 

    Every child goes through stages where temper tantrums are common.

    But knowing every parent has to deal with them at one time or another doesn't always decrease the embarrassment you might experience when your children throw themselves down on the floor kicking and screaming in a public place.

    In an attempt to put a stop to temper tantrums (and reduce the embarrassment and frustration), many parents use discipline tactics that actually make temper tantrums worse. 

    Sometimes tantrums increase in frequency, and at other times, they become more aggressive in nature.

    Many parents implement punishment strategies, believing they are using discipline. Punishment is about inflicting a penalty for wrongdoing. Discipline means "to teach."

    Many parenting techniques mistakenly focus on stopping a behavior, rather than teaching the child a skill (like how to regulate themselves when they are overwhelmed). 

    If your child is going through a stage where temper tantrums have become regular, avoid these five parenting mistakes that could make them worse.

    Paying Attention to a Tantrum

    Attention reinforces behavior, even when it’s negative attention.

    Saying things like, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” or “Quit acting like a baby,” will only encourage your child to continue their temper tantrum.

    Similarly, a parent who tries to reason with a child mid-tantrum provides reinforcement for the screaming to continue. 

    Saying something like, “We’ll go to the park tomorrow,” or “I’m so sorry that you’re mad at me for saying you can’t have a cookie. Would you like an apple instead?” isn’t helpful either.

    Ignoring is the best strategy to make a tantrum stop. Avert your eyes, pretend you can’t hear the screaming, and walk away if you have to, but make sure you don’t shower your child with any type of attention.

    Consoling Your Child During a Tantrum

    If your child cries because they are genuinely sad, by all means, console them.

    But if they are pounding their fists into the floor because they don’t want to go to bed, consoling them will only reinforce this behavior.

    Teach your child healthy ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions. When your child uses socially appropriate ways to express feelings, provide reinforcement.

    Giving in to Your Child’s Demands

    Sometimes parents give in to tantrums out of sheer desperation to make the screaming stop. 

    But each time you say, “OK, fine. Eat another cookie,” in an attempt to get your child to calm down, you teach them that temper tantrums are an excellent way to get what they want.

    They will learn to throw bigger, longer, and louder tantrums in the future. Even if you only give into temper tantrums once in a great while, your child will learn that tantrums are a powerful way to get what they want.

    Warning Your Child Repeatedly

    Making threats you don't plan to follow through with isn't helpful. Repeating your warnings can also backfire. 

    Saying, “Stop screaming or you’ll have to sit in the car,” over and over again, without actually placing your child in the car, shows them that you don’t actually mean what you say.

    If you’re in a situation where ignoring isn’t the best course of action—like in the midst of a holiday meal with family—give your child a consequence.

    Place your child in a separate room for a time-out if necessary. Take away privileges if your child’s misbehavior is disruptive to others.

    Consider the tantrum as a way for your child to communicate their unmet needs. 

    Rather than seeing the tantrum as an undesirable behavior, use it as a form of communication. Tantrums are developmentally appropriate and not unusual.

    Bribing Your Child

    Sheer desperation can lead to bribery. A mortified parent who wants their child to get up off the grocery store floor may be tempted to say, “I’ll buy you a toy if you promise to get up.” But bribing your child will only encourage them to throw more frequent tantrums.

    Rewards aren't the same as bribes.

    Offering upfront rewards can be helpful. Simply stating, "When you stand up and walk, then we can look at getting a treat" will cause the child to consider making a different choice.

    For example, before entering a store, say, “If you use an inside voice and have a good attitude at the store today, I’ll give you a sticker.” But make it clear that throwing a temper tantrum won’t be rewarded.


    Don't worry if you’re prone to making any of these mistakes. The good news is that there are discipline strategies that will put an end to temper tantrums fast.

    Behavior modification is an effective way to prevent your child from throwing a fit when they don’t get their way.

    Also, teach your child socially-appropriate ways to express anger and help them gain the mental strength to deal with their feelings in a healthy manner.

    Although tantrums are not pleasant for parents, they are not pleasant for children either. Your child does not enjoy losing control physically and emotionally.

    Because children are still learning about limits, social interactions, and how to get their needs met, they will be triggered when things are off-balance. 

    Keep in mind that tantrums are actually developmentally appropriate, expected for many young children, and will eventually decrease in severity and length as you respond in effective ways.

    Redirections work best when the “ignoring” or selective attention is coupled with positive attention, praise, and reinforcement. For example, if your child is having a tantrum because they don't want to leave the playground, you can redirect them by calmly reminding them that there's a snack waiting for them at home.

    How to Discipline a 2-Year-Old Child
    1. Ignore them. This may seem harsh, but one of the key ways of responding to your child's tantrum is to not engage it. ...
    2. Walk away. ...
    3. Give them what they want on your terms. ...
    4. Distract and divert their attention. ...
    5. Think like your toddler. ...
    6. Help your child explore. ...
    7. But set limits. ...
    8. Put them in timeout.
    1. How to discipline a toddler who doesn't listen.
    2. Get down to your toddler's level and make eye contact.
    3. Find your toddler's intentions.
    4. Give and follow through with consequences.
    5. Pick your battles.
    6. Give your toddler a choice.
    7. Explain the reason.
    8. Praise your toddler when she does what she's asked to.
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