Isn’t it remarkable how whenever you are talking on the phone, responding to an email, or talking to another adult, it is almost without fail that your children will constantly interrupt you. No matter how many times we ask them not to interrupt, the behavior continues. When you talk calmly and ask nicely, the behavior continues. You may resort to using threats, yelling, and punishment but that never seems to work and the annoying behavior still continues. It may leave you wondering why is it so hard for young kids to learn this lesson?
There are several reasons why children interrupt and as we explore these reasons it is important to keep in mind the premise that behaviors are not random. Behavior is a form of communication and all behavior is goal-oriented. When our children misbehave, we need to know that the misbehavior is a symptom of a deeper root cause that is driving the behavior. When we are attuned to our children, and when we focus on trying to understand and address the root cause of their behavior, we are more likely to succeed in eliminating unwanted behaviors.
Interrupting behaviors can be a need for attention. What children really want is our positive attention. When we respond calmly and kindly asking them not to interrupt while we are talking on the phone, that interaction rewards children with the positive attention fix they are looking for. If children are in need of an attention fix and we react with frustration and anger by reprimanding them for interrupting us, our negative responses also provide an attention fix and meets the underlying need for attention. Because children always get a response from you, positive or negative, the interrupting behavior is reinforced for them as a successful way to get your attention.
Preschoolers interrupt because they are still learning that the world does not revolve around them. Young children are focused on their own needs and have not yet realized that parents have needs too. As children’s social skills mature they will become more considerate and learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and the endless interruptions will begin to decrease.
Another reason for your child's interruptions is that he or she can't yet judge what an emergency is. With young children everything has a sense of urgency. It takes time for children to learn when something is genuinely urgent (someone is hurt) and when it is not urgent (a sibling took their toy). This lack of discrimination between urgent and not urgent drives their need to share their thoughts immediately.
Finally, young children may be interrupting constantly because they are still building skills in delaying gratification and they don’t have a sense of time. Children don’t have a sense that you are busy now but will be free to attend to them in a few minutes. This lack of sense of time coupled with the desire to get their needs met instantly makes it hard for young children to wait until you are done and ready to attend to them. Teaching kids to wait patiently is a skill that builds with practice and over time.
How to handle interrupting:
Take time to teach your child the appropriate behavior of waiting until you are available. Let your child know in advance that moving forward if they rudely interrupt you when you are talking you will not respond to that behavior, and you will walk away. Planned ignoring allows you to not give any undue attention and reinforcement to the misbehavior.
Plan ahead before you make a phone call or sit down to work. Let your child know what to expect. “I’m going to make a phone call. I’ll be a while, so what would you like to play with while I’m on the phone?” It may also be helpful to create a box of fun games and activities for kids to use when you are going to be on a call or need time to work. Before getting on the phone provide children with the box of goodies. Make sure to put the box away when you are done with work or your phone call so those items remain special and are reserved only for times you do not want to be interrupted.
Whenever possible, before getting on the phone or sitting down to answer emails let your child know that they are deserving of your full attention. Share with them that you will give them all your attention, just as soon as you are done on the phone. Be sure to keep your word!
Teach your children how to determine if something is urgent and warrants an interruption. Discuss examples of when it’s okay to interrupt, such as when someone is at the door, or if they are hurt. Role play with your child different scenarios to really help with learning and understanding.
Coach good manners. Teach your child positive ways to get your attention. Teach them how to wait for a pause in the conversation and to say, “Excuse me” or to gently squeeze your arm if they urgently need you. When he or she remembers to do this, respond positively. If the interruption is about something that should wait, let them know you will respond when you are done with your conversation. It may take a little while for them to grasp so keep working with them.
Read books on the topic. Some suggestions are “My Mouth Is a Volcano” and “The Interrupting Chicken.” Stories can be the gateway to great conversations about interrupting.
Give praise when deserved. Catching your child doing the right thing can be the best lesson of all. Praise your child for waiting patiently, using good manners, and for remembering to interrupt only for a valid reason.
Dealing with young children who constantly demand your attention can be exhausting. Keep in mind that your preschooler isn’t trying to irritate you. Children are learning how to be considerate, wait patiently, and how to be polite. Until children get older it’s important to keep teaching about not interrupting and more polite ways to let you know he or she has something to say.