Can ignoring my child help?

Dear Catherine: 

My 3.5 year old daughter Emily (not her real name) had her scooter at the park. When one of her friends took it to use, she cried and screamed.

I was not there. I normally would have Active Listened her but my helper took another helper's advice to ignore her. And then Emily stopped crying! So my helper told me she thought that was a better approach. 

Is it? 

Dear Reader:

I hear your intention to use the P.E.T. skills and it's a bit jarring when another caregiver tries something else that seems to have worked. When faced with no adult response, your daughter's tears halted and that's puzzling: Was that a helpful strategy? 

I am not a "parenting expert" -- what I can help with is shedding P.E.T. light on who owns the problem and our optimal role; the benefits of focusing on needs rather than on behavior; and how an array of communication skills can move your daughter toward resilience and independent problem-solving.

Can Ignoring Help when the Child Owns the Problem?

Since you mention Active Listening, you already realize Emily was showing non-verbally that she had a problem. 

When children are upset by challenges in their lives, our optimal role is to become a helper to them (rather than, say, to go in to fix the situation). We can aid them in releasing strong emotions, gaining insight and moving towards solving their own problems.

Let's consider ignoring in light of the 5 Helping Skills:

  • Attending -- this means giving the child our full attention, not zero
  • Acknowledgments -- showing we are following along with the child's communications, instead of pretending we don't hear
  • Door-openers -- we invite them to talk more about the problem, rather than send the message that we don't want to know 
  • Active Listening -- since we are reflecting back the child's entire message with a guess at her underlying feelings, this requires engagement and effort on our part
  • Silence -- In P.E.T., silence conveys I am putting myself in your shoes and understanding your experience. The silent treatment at the park lacked important qualities:

We Best Foster Resilience by Focusing on Needs not Behavior

Your helper likely felt she was acting in Emily's best interests by assisting her to develop "a thicker skin." Yet by deciding to ignore the behavior, she fell into a common trap. 

By zooming in on behavior, we often feel in an uncomfortable bind: Gee, I don't want to encourage this! If I give her attention or Active Listen her, isn't that rewarding unacceptable behavior? I need to teach her that that is NOT a good way to act.

Dr. Gordon points out that, in raising children, we often rely too much on unacceptance of behavior. We think the optimal way to guide is to send the message that their behavior -- here, the crying and screaming that many might deem "too sensitive" or "clingy" or "wimpy" or "babyish" or "crybaby" -- needs to change.

He advocates a vastly different approach:

When a person is able to feel and communicate genuine acceptance of another, he possesses a capacity for being a powerful helping agent for the other. His acceptance of the other, as he is, is an important factor in fostering a relationship in which the other person can grow, develop, make constructive changes, learn to solve problems, move in the direction of psychological health, become more productive and creative, and actualize his fullest potential.
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 38

P.E.T. asks us to make an important cognitive shift from behavior-focused to needs-focused parenting. 

With the P.E.T. focus on needs, we are not saying all behavior is acceptable! (We can later Problem-Solve and Consult on more socially acceptable ways of getting needs met besides whining, pushing, hitting, becoming a dead-weight in our arms etc.) We are just saying that all emotions are acceptable. And that's huge for a child's burgeoning resilience.

With the P.E.T. focus on needs, we are not saying all behavior is acceptable! (We can later Problem-Solve and Consult on more socially acceptable ways of getting needs met besides whining, pushing, hitting, becoming a dead-weight in our arms etc.) We are just saying that all emotions are acceptable. And that's huge for a child's burgeoning resilience.

Looking past behavior to focus on needs allows us to be more solution-minded: What is driving this behavior? What valid needs is my child trying to meet? How can I help my child meet those needs?

In that particular hard moment at the park, Emily didn't choose her behavior; she didn't want to be crying. She was overwhelmed and, just then, without skills to assert herself or otherwise meet needs that might have included:

  • Control -- I want to use my scooter when I want to
  • Mattering -- I want Derek to listen to me
  • Acknowledgment -- I want him to admit that it is mine
  • Understanding -- I need him and my helper to see my point of view
  • Empathy -- It would be really good to know someone knows what it's like to be me right now
  • Support -- How do I get Derek to hear me and give me my scooter back, especially when I can't even talk calmly?

Active Listening First Can Help So Much

With those needs in mind, we reach for the skills that can best help Emily meet them. 

Since she was really upset, Active Listening would have been the most useful as a start. The more we Active Listen and reflect back compassionately their experience, the better children will be able to manage difficult feelings and grow from there.

In The Secret to Raising a Resilient Child, Dr. Laura Markham's third point speaks to this: 

3. Emotional regulation. When kids feel overwhelmed by their emotions, they crumble. By contrast, kids who have better emotional regulation can tolerate the frustration of practicing, or the disappointment of losing. They're more likely to apply themselves, and to overcome setbacks. So accept your child's emotions, and honor them. She learns from experience that she can tolerate any emotion she feels and come out the other end intact, and the sun will come up the next day.

We want our children to feel secure knowing My caregiver/parent will help me through these hard momentsThe risk of your helper's silence, though, is that Emily might take away a different message: 

  • I'm not lovable 
  • I am alone when I feel upset and it's not okay to seek help or
  • Showing emotions is unacceptable 

Moreover, whenever we send messages to "calm yourself down" or "just get over it," and it looks like it worked, we should know that the feelings haven't actually magically disappeared:  

Sending your child to his room to calm down won’t keep him from being upset; it will just give him the message that he’s all alone with those big, scary emotions, and he’d better try to stuff them. Unfortunately, when humans repress emotion, those emotions are no longer under conscious control. So they pop out un-regulated, when your child lashes out or acts out.
— Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting,

Emily appearing to have calmed may also be because she knows not to expect Active Listening from your helper. If you were around, she might have sought you out and cried even harder and louder.

That's because Active Listening feels so good! 

Many parents in the course find their children specifically coming to them to share difficulties and to seek comfort. Over time, the resulting closeness and quicker return to a state of equilibrium is a huge pay-off for everyone, especially as our children get better at self-regulating even when we are not around. 

Just feeling that someone really understands how upset she is in that moment can help Emily experience emotional catharsis. Sometimes that's the solution itself! She may or may not want to confront her friend or take any other action. Maybe she would have the energy shift to patiently wait while playing on the swings instead. 

But what if she just wants her scooter back NOW? What if you foresee a similar scenario in the future and want to help her with specific skills?

Consult, Facilitate & Problem-Solve Once the Child Feels Heard

Recognizing the potential for conflicts to be learning moments, Dr. Gordon himself says that when siblings fight we should communicate that we are hopeful that they can work it out between themselves. (See P.E.T. pages 280-285)

With any two children not getting along, we might empathetically state: "I see you two are just not getting along -- that is so hard. I imagine you can resolve it and, if not, I'll be here."

Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, similarly encourages us to support (but not too much!) children in conflict:

[W]e can’t just say, “Work it out,” and leave the room. Yet we also can’t jump in too soon with the answer, because that undermines their confidence. We have to let them know that we truly believe they can figure out a solution that is right for everyone, instead of suggesting that we don’t trust them to find a good answer themselves. While they figure it out, we have to stand by and offer encouragement, and stop them from hitting each other in frustration . . . children are remarkably responsive to encouragement to figure things out on their own, as long as they can count on our support.
— Playful Parenting, pages 264-265.

After Active Listening, we we might step up with our Consulting skills and help Emily with assertive confrontation and problem-solving"Gee, I wonder what you could do or say now to solve your problem, Emily?"

If she doesn't have ideas, you could suggest and model simple Confrontive I-Messages such as, "I don't like that, Derek." or "I'm mad and sad because it's my scooter." See what happens once she tells him.

You might also have to facilitate between the two children, to help them see each other's viewpoint:

"Derek, I hear Emily saying she's upset because she wanted to play with her scooter."

"Emily, Derek has apologized and is also asking if he can have another minute. What do you think?"

Emily shakes her head no and starts to cry.

"Derek, Emily is showing that that's not a good solution for her. She's been waiting for her scooter already and doesn't want to wait anymore."

Maybe they can come up with a solution together. "Gee, this is a problem because Emily has this super fun scooter and you both want to use it. I wonder if you have any ideas for how to make sure you both have a turn and enjoy it?"

Another day, you may want to revisit the problem with your daughter and role-play through puppets, tell a story or play it out (read Playful Parenting for its plethora of juicy and accessible examples). These are all ways you can Consult and share your wisdom and guidance at a time when she can hear you.

Dear reader, it's so hard when we have others not only giving us contradictory input but also caring for our children for significant portions of the day. Maybe you can share with your helper your commitment to meeting the needs under Emily's behavior rather than focusing on the behavior itself. Perhaps she can read this P.E.T. breakdown?

Thank you for your question!  

Wishing you peace in parenting,


P.S. Active Listening Can Be Hard

Even though we might agree that our attitude of acceptance can help our children more than anything in that moment, it's so much easier said than done, right?

What strategies can you adopt to help yourself when you are feeling frazzled and judgmental -- What? Not again! You've GOT to be kidding me. When will she learn she can't cry constantly? She's a big girl now and can't come crying for every little thing!

This is truly one of the biggest challenges we face as parents, I think: Working on ourselves enough so that we can actually be helpers to our children when they need us.

It's nigh impossible when we feel a lot of strong emotions swirling in us and we want to charge in and solve this problem once and for all! In other words, somehow it feels like WE own the problem and we've got to do something to make it go away!

I address this dilemma head on in my Perfectly Good Day Series:

Sending waves of support. And compassion.


Credits: Head in the sand (; Behavior visual (