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Using Ignoring in Therapy When A Child Refuses to Engage

Every therapist has been there… we get children who sometimes do not want to be in our office and do not want to talk to us.  Better yet, we get a child who wants to play with all of our toys, but won’t answer questions or engage at all.  One effective strategy I have found is ignoring, but there’s a method to it.  With some kiddos, you can just ignore and remove toys, and they’ll eventually start talking to you because they want your attention.  But I have had some STUBBORN kiddos, who will just sit and stare at the wall.

One strategy I’ve used in that scenario is to ignore, but have a grand time playing (without them) with whatever toy they’ve chosen.  Here’s an example:

I had a kiddo who did NOT want to tell me about his day (it had been a bad day).  He had chosen to build something with K’Nex pieces and we had already started building.  He refused to answer my question, so I scooted the pieces away from him and reminded him that if he wanted to play, he needed to talk to me and answer my question.  I then began building something else with the K’Nex pieces… while talking to myself about what I was going to build and (pretending that I was) having a blast!  At first, he ignored me, but after a minute or two I saw him start to peek at what I was doing out of the corner of his eye.  After a few minutes, I reminded him that he was welcome to build with me as soon as he answered my question.  Initially, he still refused to talk, so I continued playing, but after a few more minutes, he caved and said he was ready to talk.  I repeated the initial question and once he answered, I showed appreciation and we began building together again.  Were his answer super elaborate?  No.  Did he pretend he was miserable the whole time?  Absolutely.  But he participated and we were able to make some progress.

This won’t work with all kids.  I had a 9 year old sit in my office for almost 30 minutes once and refuse to talk or even look at me.  It happens.  Despite my effort to engage by showing empathy, normalizing, changing the subject, and having him express his thoughts and feelings non-verbally (drawing or writing), he still refused to engage.  It happens.  However, the more tools/strategies we have to draw a kiddo out, the more likely we are to find one that works with a particular child… because they’re all so different and what works for one may not work for the other.

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