Updated: Mar 9
If you have children (or have friends who do), you are familiar with many interruptions when trying to have an adult conversation in person....or while talking on the phone....or maybe even when trying to use the bathroom in peace, but instead have little fingers wiggling at you from underneath the door!
LISTEN MAMAS:This is not something you should WAIT for them to "grow out of"... Actually, if you resign yourself to wait until they grow out of it...you may find you'll not have an interrupted moment. Ever. Again. 😳
I know you don't want that for your child - or for yourself. We have a responsibility to teach our children that the world does not revolve around them! If we constantly allow them to interrupt us, thereby putting their wants or needs above everyone else's, they will expect everyone else to do the same. They will be unable to love others well when they expect everyone to serve them.
Here's how to help your interrupting child be more respectful and allow YOU to finish a conversation:
#1 It Starts with YOU
First, understand that the first years of your child's life were probably spent responding immediately to his every whim - especially if he was the only baby - guilty 🙋🏻♀️. Couple that with the developmental knowledge that before the age of three, children really struggle to comprehend that other people have needs and don't yet possess the needed self-control to WAIT for long periods of time.
Just know that extensive research supports responding consistently and promptly to physical or emotional needs within the FIRST YEAR of life as absolutely necessary to create a healthy attachment.
However, if you are still dropping everything to attend to your child when she is developmentally able to take care of these things herself, it is absolutely time to ask yourself with a non-judgmental curiosity:
"I wonder why I do these things for him if he can do them for himself?"
THINK:Do you still wipe your four-year-olds bottom? Are you still pouring cereal or putting frozen waffles in the toaster for your five-year-old's breakfast? Do you still help your six-year-old get dressed? Do you appropriately expect your seven or eight-year-old to help with family responsibilities (set the table, help bring in/put away groceries, make own bed, put dirty clothes in the hamper/clean clothes in the drawer?)
#2 It's Still About You...
Once you start wondering why you do things for your child that she can do herself (Do I have a need to be needed? Do I not like messes? Did my mom not do these things for me and I wish she would have?), then you can assess what kind of communication you are modeling for and with your child.
Starting early, use words to describe, "I am going to pick you up to change your diaper now" before swooping in and picking him up wordlessly. Imagine you are a child, sitting there exploring a new toy and noticing that when you move your hand over it you hear music. All of a sudden you are picked up from behind, carried across the room, placed on your back and your clothes are being taken off! WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED?!
Giving a toddler a verbal cue that play time is almost over can help her prepare to make this transition, and is more respectful than insisting she clean up right now! Since our children model their behavior after ours, be aware of your own behavior. How do you speak to others in your life (especially in front of your child)? Do you wait for your turn to talk to cut them off? Do you show them respect by listening attentively when they are talking? If you need to interrupt someone's train of thought, do you model the same respectful language you would expect ("Excuse me," "I am sorry to interrupt," "Is this an OK time?")?
#3 It's time to teach
Now that you have done some self-reflection, figure out a special code or hand signal that works for you and your child. Teach it and use it consistently. In Ginger Hubbards' book, "Don't Make Me Count to Three" (Terrible title, excellent book!), she suggests having your child put a hand on your arm when he wants to tell you something and you are in the middle of something. You put your hand over his so that he knows you know he wants to talk to you, but has to wait. Then, once you have a break in your task, you can ask him what he needed. Kitty Elicay from smartparenting.com shared that for her elementary aged kids, she uses two signals: One for short waits and one for letting them know it's going to be a while - so go play and come back later! Remember that while you are teaching the skill of waiting patiently, if you continue to respond to your child's (interrupting) questions, you’re just reinforcing this behavior. Sometimes it's OK to simply not respond.
Of course there are going to be times when interrupting is OK (like in an emergency), so be prepared to give examples. In our home we said if there is blood or fire, it's an emergency! But also teach your child to look for the motive under the interruption to help develop self-awareness skills:
"Are you interrupting me to be helpful or hurtful?"
"I wonder if you are really needing my attention right now or if you can wait until I finish this task first?"
"It seems like you are having a really difficult time waiting to talk to me?"
#4 Practice these skills
Like with any skill, not interrupting needs to be taught and practiced. We need to provide opportunities to practice these skills so our children can be successful! Maybe you want to tell your child that you are going to pretend to be talking on the phone and your child can pretend to need you for a non-emergency using the hand signal or code you taught. How did it go?
If your children are a little older, you can role play waiting turns to talk during conversations. For example, ask them a question like, "What are your favorite things to do when we go to the park?" Wait for them to finish, and repeat back to them what they said to model active listening skills (i.e. "So you like the slides and the climbing structures, but not as much as the swings and the see-saws?"). Then, tell them that it’s their turn to ask you a question. If they interrupt while you’re answering, gently remind them that they are to be listening, not talking. Once you are finished, ask them what they remember about what you said.
#5 Give Them Choices
Knowing that your BFF is coming over or you need to make an important phone call or you'd like to have five minutes in the bathroom alone, give your child a choice! Explain what it is you need to do and tell them, "While you wait for me to finish _________, you can play with the blocks or the cars. Which works best for you?" Offering them choices often satisfies their need to exercise some control in their life. Just make sure to keep the choices positive, simple, and specific.
Here are some other ideas:
*"I need to talk on the phone for a few minutes. Do you want to read books or have a tea party with your dolls?"
*"Your dad and I need to talk about something. Would you like to build this puzzle or play with legos while we're talking?"
*Or even, "I need some quiet time for 10 minutes, can you find something to occupy you or do you want some help?"
#6 Have Realistic Expectations
The process of learning not to interrupt or to do so politely takes practice, they are not going to learn this overnight! And, NONE of us do anything perfectly all the time. Young children are going to get excited about something and forget to use the hand signal from time to time. Use these mistakes as opportunities to teach! Most of the time, they are not interrupting to be rude or because they don’t care about your needs. Children will learn more more about active listening, taking turns, waiting, listening attentively and respecting others if you take the time to model how you expect it to be done. Give your child some tools, have a plan and then plenty of opportunities to practice. Manage your expectations and be patient as they learn self-control and awareness. With your consistent help, they'll get there!
#ConnectPointMoms helps you create stronger relational connections with the children in your life. This starts with being aware of your own stuff so you can BE PRESENT with your children in the moment you're in, and then knowing and using the best ways to communicate with them!
Some books that have helped along the way include: