Ep 53: Bad Behavior? Ignore It!

Episode Summary

Catherine Pearlman, author of Ignore It, explains how to make bad behavior stop by pretending you don’t notice it. Discover Catherine’s secret strategies for eliminating annoying behaviors on this episode. Learn what you can ignore and what you can’t as well as how to re-engage after the behavior stops.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

This week Dr. Catherine Pearlman joins the show for a conversation about her book Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction. After years of coaching young mothers as a social worker, Dr. Pearlman founded the Family Coach, where she visits family homes and coaches parents through their most stressful time of day.

Catherine’s interview includes a dissection of how exactly the Ignore It! principles work. It’s not about ignoring your teen – rather, it’s about ignoring your teen’s bad antics so your teen stops repeating them!

Dr. Pearlman also clarifies when you should NOT ignore things. Most important on the list of things to not ignore? Good behavior!

In this episode we cover:

  • How to negotiating with your teen may be back-firing
  • Exactly how the Ignore It! method works
  • What to expect the first time you ‘ignore it’
  • How a ‘negative’ response can still be rewarding
  • Natural consequences and how to use them

Dr. Pearlman writes the column “Dear Family Coach”, which has been syndicated in publications like the Wall Street Journal, CNN.com, Sports Illustrated, and the Huffington Post. I’m excited to be sharing all that parenting wisdom in this interview!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. To resist giving into immediate negotiations with your teen:

“Let’s table that request until tomorrow because I would like to talk to your sister about it. But I’m really glad you brought it up.” OR “Let me think about the request – give me five minutes.”

-Catherine Pearlman

2.  Instead of going over how your teens’ latest drama-tantrum affected you, move past it with:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Behavior Response Log:

Catherine discusses how she will often have parents keep a log for a few days. In the log the parents jot down when they say something positive to their kids about good behavior and when they say something negative about bad behavior. Catherine has noted that more often than not, the first few days are heavy on the negative and light on the positive. The problem with this is that when good behavior goes unrewarded*, it usually disappears. To get started on the log, jot down a heading for “Praise/thanks” and “criticisms.” Try to recall your previous day to get the lists started. As you progress through several days, see if you can get the two lists to be fairly balanced. After you achieve that, see if you can get the “praise/thanks” list to be greater than the “criticisms.”

2.  Get a List of Compliments Going:

(Members Only)

3.  Your Top 3 (Part 1 of 2):

(Members Only)

4.  Measurable, Specific Aims (Part 2 of 2):

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I think a great place to start usually, is just how did this happen? You’re founder of The Family Coach, so you coach families in how to get through like difficult issues that’s happening in their family. And you have this book called, Ignore It! This book has a little kid on the cover, but I just really found that a lot of the stuff you talk about in here seems so applicable for teenagers, so I’m fascinated by how you got into this, where this family coach thing came from, and then where did the impetus for Ignore It! arise?

Catherine: So I’ve been working as a social worker for 25 years, and in the very beginning of my career, even before I had kids, I worked in a program that helped teenage moms, and I would make home visits and help them through their parenting. The funny thing is, I really knew only what I learned from books, I mean, I really knew very little about what the day-to-day life was with kids, but still I could see some of the problems that they were having and I did my best to help them through it. Then years later I had my own kids, I saw all the people around me having kids, and I thought a lot of parents could benefit from somebody coming in the home and offering them some advice, some tips, that can really improve and make a big difference in the day-to-day experience of parenting.

Catherine: It’s a hard job. It’s a hard job on the best of days, and it’s even harder with a kid who’s tantruming or one who doesn’t eat anything at the table or siblings that are always fighting. So if I could help parents alleviate some of those things, then parenting gets a whole lot easier. So I started The Family Coach and I would go into people’s homes, I would ask them what’s the worst time of day and I would visit then, and then help them improve what was going on there. After doing that enough times, you start to see patterns, right? There’s really five main reasons parents are calling me, and I would start to say the same thing over and over again.

Catherine: And one of the things I said to every parent, no matter what they called for, was ignore it. It didn’t matter if it was a toddler or a teenager, I was saying ignore it all the time. Then suddenly after 10 years of this, I started thinking, you know what? This is a book. This could help a lot of people in a very simple way, improve behavior in the quickest amount of time, and you immediately feel better. So I just decided I’m just going to take everything I learned from my practice in all of those years, and I was going to put it into this book and help parents that way.

Andy: A lot of people are recommending that parents negotiate with their teens and make the teens feel heard and like they feel like they have a voice, but you point out that negotiating is always a good idea because parents never win that negotiation. The only thing that’s going to happen if a kid comes and negotiates with you, is that they’re going to get more than they had before, right? So if you give in and you accept their negotiations, then now they’ve learned the lesson that like, “Oh, so negotiating works, and every time I don’t want to do something, I go and just like, say, ‘Hey, actually mom, this isn’t working for me.’ And you’ll just go along with it.”

Andy: I think there’s a balance because we want to teach our kids that you should speak up for yourself, and in life when life hands you lemons or whatever, you shouldn’t just quietly accept it, you should go try to negotiate for it. But at the same time, if you let them keep negotiating with you all the time, then they’re just going to run all over you essentially, right? So I was curious what your take on negotiation is, and how you think, especially with teenagers, how you can walk that line?

Catherine: So parents really struggle with negotiation, and honestly, it’s exhausting. And the thing is, I am a huge believer in talking with your kids, especially teenagers, and working through things with them. So I’m not going to just tell you what we’re going to have for dinner, I might ask you what are the things you like to eat and I’ll try and make more of that. Or when would you like to do your homework, what’s the best thing that works for you? I don’t necessarily need to dictate that, let’s let the teenager tell me what works for them. That’s great. The problem is, negotiation, once you’ve already given a directive as a parent, you want that directive to stand. So clean up your room before dinner or go to bed by this time period or this is what we’re having for dinner, you don’t want to say that and say like…

Catherine: Or it’s time to turn the TV off by 10 o’clock and then have the kids say, “How about 10:15?” Or this is dinner. And they’re like, “Well, can I have something else instead?” Or you say, “It’s time for you to clean your room.” They said, “Well, can I just do it tomorrow?” Every time you say something and then the child says, “No, can I just do it at 10:15?” And you’re like-

Andy: What if I do this instead?

Catherine: It goes back and forth and back and forth, and so it’s exhausting for the parent. Sometimes you just want to say, “Here’s how it’s going to be.” And that’s how it’s going to be. So I don’t mind parents talking with their kids and making a decision about what’s going to work best for the family, but once you say, “No, it’s time to put the cellphone away or it’s time to turn the TV off, or this is what’s for dinner,” then that’s it. Because once you negotiate, you are encouraging the child to negotiate for everything forevermore.

Andy: That makes so much sense. And I think in order to do that, you have to not just make the decision really quickly, you have to know that once you make the decision, you’re going to want that decision to stand and you’re going to want to not negotiate any more from that point forward. So I think if you’re going to adopt that attitude, then like you say, it makes sense to almost negotiate up front a little bit, get their input during the process while you’re making whatever decision you’re going to make, but then once you make it, stick to it.

Catherine: Right. I mean, the thing is behavior that has a reward is going to be repeated, so if teenagers negotiate with us and the reward is they get an extra dessert, they get more screen time, or they get to stay out later with friends because they nagged us and then they get the reward, they’re going to do it more often. So it’s really important, but it is counterintuitive and it really does take practice. So, for me, I go to no really quickly with my kids, and maybe sometimes I should stop first, think about it, do we have time for a show, do we have dessert, am I okay with it, before I just say no. Because once I say no, and then I say yes, after they complain or beg and bargain or whatever, then I’m encouraging more of that behavior. So it does take practice to stop for a second, let me think about the request, and then let me come to a decision. And parents can learn to say, “You know what? Give me five minutes and I’ll get back to you about that.”

Andy: Yeah, let me think about that. In fact, let’s table that decision until tomorrow because I want to make sure I talked to your sister about it, and I want to make sure I talk to your dad about it and get a decision that works for everybody. But I’m really glad that you brought it up.

Catherine: And then the other thing is, it does take practice when you say… So let’s say you say, “I’m going to think about it, we’ll talk about it.” And you come to a decision that the teenager doesn’t like, so inevitably there’s going to be complaining, tantruming, yelling, cursing, button pushing, all this kind of stuff that you just have to handle, and that’s what you ignore. Because if you respond to that, the teenager gets what they want, even if they don’t get to stay out later, they get attention and they get you angry, and sometimes that’s very rewarding. It’s like, “If I can’t get what I want and I’m angry, at least I can make you angry.” So it really takes practice for the parent-

Andy: Right, they’re kind of punishing you.

Catherine: Exactly, and it works. Nd then sometimes we lose our patience, and then the kid’s like, “Great, that was effective. I didn’t get what I wanted, but my behavior still got a reward.” So it really takes practice for the parent to say, “It’s okay for the kid to be angry and to express it, and I’m just not going to respond.” And once the parent does that a few times, the kids get it, it’s over, you’ve already said no, you’ve turned your back, you’re walking away. It doesn’t matter how much I curse or yell at you, nothing’s going to happen so there’s no benefit, I might as well not even bother.

Andy: And actually you point out that, you call it an extinction burst, like sometimes it actually gets worse before it gets better. So I guess, how do you know if it’s working or not, and how do you know if maybe you’re dealing with a situation that the ignore it is not going to work on, or you’re dealing with a kid that’s just super defiant and it’s getting worse instead of better. How do you know whether it’s something to be worried about or whether it’s just an extinction burst?

Catherine: Right. So the extension burst is sometimes things get worse before they get better, because think about it, if you’ve got a teenager who for years has been negotiating and generally it’s successful, they usually get a little something that they want, even if one out of 20 times, they get what they want, it’s enough to be reinforcing. And now the rules have changed, so the kid doesn’t really believe it. So what they’re going to do is they’re going to try and break the parent and try even harder, make the behavior even worse, and then they’re like, “Wow, still nothing? I still don’t get what I want, let me make it even worse than that.” And they try that and still nothing, then they give it up. And it usually doesn’t take very long, but a parent has to stay consistent and continue to ignore it without providing any feedback or positive reinforcement.

Catherine: So it can take time, and sometimes things do get worse. And so for parents, a lot of times when things get worse, that’s when they give it up, they’re like, “This isn’t working.” But that is actually a sign that it is working, and the kid is getting the message and they’re frustrated, that makes perfect sense because it always worked before so if it’s-

Andy: Right, they’re trying harder.

Catherine: Exactly, they’re trying harder, just wait it out, keep ignoring it. And also, make sure you’re ignoring only things in response to when you’ve said no, or put down a requirement when they’re being annoying and button pushing battle of wills behavior. Make sure you’re only ignoring that stuff, you’re not really ignoring them when they’re trying to have a conversation with you or something that’s important. But generally, they’re ignoring the right stuff and it’s getting worse because the kid is not accustomed to this, but keep going and it will pass.

Andy: How do you make sure that you’re ignoring just the behavior and not the kid? I mean, if they’re doing something that’s annoying, but then at the same time they are trying to start a conversation with you about something that happened at school today. How do you balance that so that they don’t feel like they’re not being seen, but that they do get the message that the behavior is not getting through?

Catherine: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I try and teach parents to have a high tolerance for what they claim disrespectful behavior is, and for the package. The job of a teenager is to develop skills to become independent, and that happens over time in a kind of messy way a lot of times. There are mistakes and there are bumps in the road.

Andy: Not always a clean break.

Catherine: Exactly, and that’s good actually, we want them to make mistakes while they’re still in the safety of their parents and their home, and they can get some support and work through problems. If they have no issues or problems with parents who are really helicoptering and involved, then the kids go off to college, and believe me, it hits there and it doesn’t go very well, or they go into adulthood and they’re really lost. So we want them to have this kind of up and down and some difficulties and make mistakes and forget homework or fail a test or get kicked off the team, whatever it is, make their mistakes now and work through it.

Catherine: So I try and teach parents to not look so much at the package that what’s coming to you, not look so much about the tone of voice, but hear what’s happening, really try and listen to what’s going on or where’s this all coming from. So for example, with my kid, I have a teenager, I have a 16 year old, I can look at her and I can just ask her a simple question and I get just nastiness back. It’s not about me, it’s not about my question, it’s about her stress level with school or her anxiety about a change that’s about to happen or a game that’s coming up, or she’s hungry or she’s tired. You’ve got to kind of see the bigger picture sometimes, and for me, when I see that behavior, that’s a sign for me to back up a little bit, give them a little bit more space.

Catherine: Or for other kids, it might be give them more attention, they’re not getting enough. They’re needing a little bit more, and that’s where the reengaging part happens. Ignore some of the obnoxious behavior, but get in there, play a video game with your kid and try and talk it out, ask the kid to go for a walk with the dog, get them in the kitchen to help you. Just try and engage in a positive way and give them a space to talk in a more open way. If you say to your teenager, “What’s wrong? Why are you so cranky or what?” You’re not going to get anything, but if you’re sitting down playing a game or you’re playing a video game or you’re walking or you’re in the car, is just the best place for this to happen, and you’re not face-to-face and the kid is a little distracted, you’re going to get a little bit more of the underlying. So ignore some of the behavior, but not the kid. Get in there, reengage, and find out what’s going on.

Andy: So then how do we figure out which behaviors fit into this framework and which ones don’t? Because a lot of parenting books are like, “Oh, this will solve everything, you can use this on every possible thing your kid ever does.” Nothing works on everything, right? So, I mean, there’s some things that wouldn’t be a good idea to ignore, and you make some really cool distinctions. As you’re kind of looking at the behavior that your teenager is presenting with, how do you make that decision of is this a ignore it type behavior, or is this a behavior that I really actually need to address?

Catherine: Right. So anything that happens immediately after we say no to a request, that we can ignore, right? That’s just tantrum behavior. That [crosstalk 00:14:58] whining, complaining, negotiating, all that stuff that happens after we say no, that can be ignored. Anything that’s annoying is best to ignore, because I’ve had kids and adults even tell me this, they used to do it to their siblings, my sister used to do it to me, the most reinforcing thing is to say, “That’s annoying.” And then the kid’s like, “Really? Kicking the back of your seat is it annoying? Let me do it more often.”

Andy: Cha-ching.

Catherine: Exactly. I mean, it happens with siblings all the time, one goes running to the parent to complain, you’re like, “Ha ha, I got you angry and then you got in trouble.” So it’s very reinforcing. So anything that’s annoying, best to say nothing. Same thing with teenagers when they’re cursing at you, they’re being disrespectful, they’re pushing your buttons, the only reason they’re doing that is so that you can get angry and then that will reinforce and reward their behaviors, so don’t do anything about that. The things that you can ignore are few, but really important. So you can’t ignore real pain. If your kid is crying because you said no to something and they’re throwing a little tantrum, you can ignore that.

Catherine: But if your kid is really suffering through something or is really in pain about something or is sad, hurt, we never going to ignore that, we got to get in and discuss that. We never ignore something where someone else is getting hurt, like a kid throwing toys at someone else or punching a sibling or something like that or a vandalism. I was once in a supermarket and a kid was throwing things off the shelves, you can’t just look the other way and ignore it and just keep going, that’s someone else’s property, you got to address that. So anything like that, you’ve got to get involved.

Catherine: And then the last thing that’s the most important thing that we can’t ignore is a good behavior. And what I have found being in people’s homes, in thousands of homes, is that parents are so quick to adjust behavior and give feedback on negative behavior, and try and do teaching moments and improve their kids all the time that they’re forgetting all the good behavior. And if you don’t reward the good behavior, it goes bye-bye, right?

Catherine: Remember we said if there’s a reward, it’ll get repeated, so if it’s no reward, it’s not going to get repeated, and so we don’t recognize the good things our kids do and they stop doing it. And I try and tell people imagine you’re at work and you worked really hard in this project and it took weeks and you’re so proud of it and you handed it in and your boss said nothing. No response whatsoever, no feedback. You’d be like, “Well, I’m going to try less hard next time, nobody cares.”

Andy: Right. Why did I just work so hard on this thing if no one even noticed?

Catherine: Right. And parents spend so much time on the negative stuff and improving and teaching moments that they spend so little time… I’ve even had parents log in a day, I don’t want you to fix anything, I don’t want you to do anything, for a week I want you to observe yourself and log when you say something to your kid about good behavior and when you’re saying something about negative behavior. And the scale is like so far tipped, and it really does take practice just like everything else. We got to thank our kids for doing the chores, we got to tell them great job for good behavior, we got to thank them for helping us with the supermarket bags when we get home, if we don’t, they’re going to forget and they’re not going to bother with it.

Andy: I think that’s so true, and it’s kind of the flip side of this whole… Basically this book is based on conditioning, right? It’s like what gets rewarded gets repeated, and it goes both ways and I think that’s a great point. You’ve walked us through how to tell whether it’s something that you could ignore, we’ve kind of talked about how to do the ignoring. But I like where you go after that, which is then that once the behavior stops then you immediately have to reengage. And so I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how the re-engagement process works. It ties right into what you were just saying, where good behaviors have to be rewarded, so it’s like once they stop doing the thing that you don’t want them to do, then they kind of need a little pot of gold for doing that, right, where you have to now immediately stop ignoring them and reconnect and give them some attention.

Catherine: Right. So the thing is, if we don’t give them attention, they’re just going to go right back to doing bad things to get our attention, and we’re ignoring their behavior briefly, just so that we don’t reinforce it, that we don’t give a reward or a benefit to the behavior so it doesn’t get repeated. But as soon as they’re done with the behavior, we have to reengage them, we can’t just stay mad. We have to just breathe through the part where they’re tantruming and complaining and negotiating and whining and pushing our buttons, but the second it stops, we just changed the subject, “Hey, what are you doing tonight, do you want to sit down for dinner? Are you coming with us to grandma’s?” Like just moving on like it didn’t happen, and then the kid will get over it.

Catherine: And one of the things I love so much about Ignore It!, is how, especially for teens, the relationship between the parents and the teen improves almost immediately. Because parenting a teen is not always pleasant, they really push our buttons, they’re going through a lot of their own stuff, they’re pushing back, they’re trying to be independent, they’re not around as often. There’s just a lot of emotional roller coaster riding that goes on, and parents can feel very conflicted with their teenagers. But once you step away and you’ve stopped engaging in these little battle of wills, a lot of times you like your kid more, you feel more warm towards them, your relationship improves.

Catherine: And the same way from them to you, and it’s actually really beautiful when you stop nitpicking all of their behaviors and the annoying stuff and their clothing and the way they do their hair, and just the stupid little things that are meaningless, and you start praising the good stuff, it’s like all of a sudden the relationship blossoms. Everyone knows when they have a kid that they’re really struggling with, this is so important to do. Because the bottom line is, you want to have a long lasting relationship with your kid. Soon they’ll probably leave the house, and you want them to still call you and visit and you want to still have an adult relationship, and so being able to step back from the stuff that’s not important and stop with the bickering over little stuff, and they’re pushing your buttons, the relationship can really blossom before they leave the house. And even once they have left, I’ve talked to people about doing this with your college kids when they come home and even your adult kids. So it’s really lifesaving for the relationship.

Andy: Okay, but then after you reengage and get things, you’re back now talking in a… they’re not doing the annoying thing anymore, do you ever address it a few days later or something like that? Do you ever come back and say like, “Hey, I wanted to talk about what was happening a few days ago.” Or do you just pretend that it just never existed?

Catherine: Mostly I pretend that it never existed, because let’s be honest, the kids know that it’s disrespectful to yell and scream in your face. They know it’s disrespectful to slam the door, they know you don’t like it, you’ve already told them. They know you don’t like cursing, you’ve already told them. They’re just angry and they’re out of control in that minute and they’re really trying to push your buttons, so really having to discussion after you reengage, or even the next day, it’s almost like a waste of time and it can be reinforcing again for that same behavior.

Andy: Ah, so they weren’t completely ignoring it, they did see that it happened. And like yeah.

Catherine: Exactly, “You’re still talking about it? Okay, it was effective, I’m going to try that again next time. I really hurt your feelings? Wonderful, that was what I was trying to do.” So it’s really not important to discuss it. I love when parents have good conversations with their kids about behavior and feelings, but not when something’s going on and not in response to something. So by all means, sit down to dinner and talk about something that’s been on your mind, but not a previous argument that’s happened. You might say, “I’ve just not really felt connected to you lately, maybe we could do something together this weekend.” That’s so much better than rehashing a bad moment that happened in the past.

About Catherine Pearlman

Dr. Catherine Pearlman is the founder of The Family Coach and devoted mom to two teens and one dog. In addition to her nationally syndicated column “Dear Family Coach” Catherine has appeared on the Today’s Show several times as a parenting expert.

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