How often are you on the phone, engrossed in conversation, when a tug at your arm or a voice of desperation pleads for your attention?
I personally get so frustrated with my children interrupting me that I’ve threatened, “Don’t try to talk to me when I’m in a conversation with another adult unless you’re hurt or the house is burning down!â€
Whether you are on the phone, in the shower or involved in an intense conversation with your spouse, your child will find the most inopportune moment to ask you to watch him do a cartwheel or to tell you that his sister won’t stop pinching him on the arm.
Why do children always seem to need us when we are preoccupied with something else? In the book, Good Behavior (St. Martin’s Paperbacks; $7.99), Stephen Garber, Ph.D., Marianne Garber, Ph.D., and Robyn Spizman say, “There’s one major reason why children interrupt. They want your attention now. Like most other behaviors, interrupting is a habit children learn to use because it works.â€
A child’s bad habit of interrupting can be cured, but it will take a considerable amount of patience. “The hardest part of the cure is keeping your cool during the learning period,” say the authors.
Parents need to be patient and consistent when teaching their children restraint. That’s what interrupting is – a lack of restraint on the child’s part. It is particularly difficult to teach this to very young children who tend to be more spontaneous and needy.
Acknowledge Your Child’s Presence
Most experts agree that simply ignoring your child won’t work. Your child needs to know that you realize he needs to speak with you, or he will continue to try to get your attention.
William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N., authors of The Discipline Book (Little, Brown and Company; $14.99) concur. “The more you try to ignore the tug on your skirt, the more persistent he is.” So the challenge becomes showing your child that you see and hear him while respectfully continuing your conversation.
It’s important to show your child that you are interested in his needs. “Arrange a signal that indicates your recognition, such as holding up a finger or saying, â€˜Just one more minute,'” say Garber, Garber and Spizman. However, they also warn, “Make sure you don’t keep him waiting 10 minutes.” This is an integral part of the training. Your child must trust your words for this to work.
If you say, “two minutes,” you must mean two minutes. Showing him that you’re good for your word will help him learn to wait. If he has learned that it’s really going to be 10 minutes or more, he will easily get frustrated and revert to improper and ill-mannered tactics.
For a very young child, this process can seem daunting. Sears and Sears say, “Children younger than 3 can’t understand what â€˜don’t interrupt’ means. You’ll save yourself a lot of wasted energy by momentarily stopping your conversation, squatting to your child’s level, looking him in the eyes and finding out what he wants.
A few minutes of focused attention will usually pacify the most persistent youngster.” They also suggest that you find convenient times for anticipated long conversations, like when your child is napping or asleep for the night.
For the toddler, an accessible drawer filled with fun things he doesn’t normally play with can keep him occupied for a while. A small pad of paper, a durable photo album (those made specifically for toddlers) or some colorful Tupperware and wooden spoons are always good choices. The younger child will only be able to wait a minute or two. “Patience and kindness are always the best route in my opinion,” says Mandy Jones, founder of the Artsy Mamas mom’s group in Murfreesboro.
“When my son interrupts, I simply say, â€˜Mommy is talking right now. Can you please wait your turn?'” Give the “signal” you have chosen (remember, consistency is a critical part of the training), then wait 30 to 60 seconds before interrupting your conversation and tending to your child. Garber, Garber and Spizman advise, “Gradually lengthen the time between signal and response. And be sure to praise your child for waiting.â€
Sometimes it is a task, not a conversation, which you are in the middle of when your child demands your attention. Garber, Garber and Spizman suggest you use a timer. “Set the timer yourself or let your child set it for a certain length of time. When the bell rings, be sure to carry out your part of the deal.â€
It’s all about building your child’s trust and letting him know that you respect him and care about his needs while also helping him understand there are rules that must be followed. “If you have already established boundaries and respect in your relationship, then reminding and asking is pretty much the only reasonable way to teach children to wait their turn,” says Jones.
It is pertinent that you practice what you preach. Don’t interrupt your child when he is in a conversation with someone. Use the same methods that you have taught him for reinforcement.
Teach Your Child to Interrupt “Politelyâ€
Of course, there are those times when your child will need to interrupt no matter what. Maybe he feels sick and needs to use the restroom, or he hurt himself on the playground. Children need to be taught that there are times when it is OK to interrupt. Therefore, children must learn to use appropriate phrases and behaviors when interrupting is necessary.
“By age 7, a child can develop a polite way to say, â€˜I have a question,'” Sears and Sears explain. After the child has interrupted your conversation with an appropriate, “Excuse me,” he needs to learn to wait for your response.
Garber, Garber and Spizman suggest using role-play techniques with your child. Enlist family members to act out various scenarios so your child can practice polite interrupting behaviors. “You can also role play inappropriate behavior, playing the annoying interrupter yourself and letting the child see how that feels,” explain Garber, Garber and Spizman.
You may need to remind yourself that it will take patience and perseverance to teach your child the art of restraint. Learning to be a good listener and interrupting only when necessary and in a respectful manner takes practice and teaches a valuable social skill. The earlier your child learns these things, the better off he will be.
Myrna Haskell is a freelance writer.
coaching good behavior
The following tips are from the new book, The No-Cry Discipline Solution (McGraw Hill: $16.95) by Elizabeth Pantley:
- Give lessons and discuss examples of when it’s OK to interrupt – for example, when someone is at the door or if a sibling is hurt.
- Coach proper manners. Teach your child how to wait for a pause in the conversation and to say, “Excuse me.” When he remembers to do this, respond positively to him.
- Teach “the squeeze.” Tell your child that if he wants something when you are talking to another adult, he should walk up to you and gently squeeze your arm and then wait for you.