Have you noticed that whenever you fall into a conversation with another adult—whether it’s a teacher, a fellow parent, or even someone on the other end of a phone call—it triggers your children to interrupt?
Why does this happen? For starters, sensing that a parent’s focus has moved away from them can feel scary to kids. It may even inspire them to act out in order to feel seen. (Hey, they don’t call it “attention-seeking behavior” for nothing.) Kids may melt down, shout potty words, attempt dangerous playground stunts, pick fights with siblings—let’s normalize it all.
The most important thing you can do in these situations is self-regulate. Remember: While your instinct may be to immediately put out the fire, your child’s interruption is not actually an emergency. Writes author and parenting guru Janet Lansbury: “You’re not hurting [your child] by not responding to every single time she says, ‘Mama,’ or hurrying up your phone calls because she’s yelling at you.”
In fact, setting boundaries around interrupting is healthy. So how to do it in a loving way? Read on for tips.
Don’t: Get Angry
Don’t assume kids are interrupting to be rude. Recognize what interrupting is NOT (disobedience, disrespect, anti-social behavior). Clear those misconceptions out of the way so you can respond to your child with the goal of connection, not just correction.
Keep in mind, young children are ego-centric. They don’t automatically realize how interrupting feels from another person’s perspective. Kids aren’t born with social skills or knowing how to read cues. Children with ADHD, for example, tend to interrupt because they are prone to impulsivity and often blurt things out without planning to. Kids may be truly afraid they will forget the important thing they wanted to say, inspiring a real sense of urgency. If your attention is focused elsewhere, it may be scary for young children to suddenly feel that their sole source of support and safety has been withdrawn for reasons beyond their control. This may seem irrational. You’re standing five feet away from her; of course she’s safe! That doesn’t make her feelings any less real.
So while repeated interrupting can be frustrating for adults, kids deserve empathy, not anger.
Do: Say, “I see you.”
Here’s a roadmap to managing your next interruption.
Prepare: Anticipate when you are going to be in a situation when you will need to be focused on other adults: a family gathering, a visit with the pediatrician, an important Zoom. Then work with your child to explicitly plan out what you are both going to do while Mom’s attention is focused on the other adult(s). “When we talk to kids in advance, we pre-infuse connection, understanding, and problem-solving,” writes Clinical Psychologist and mom of three Dr. Becky Kennedy, whose podcast Good Inside offers positive, actionable parenting tips . “Then when a moment comes, instead of your child wondering, ‘What is happening to me?,’ he will say to himself, ‘Ah yes... we talked about this. I got this.’
If you have an important Zoom coming up, tell your child about it an hour and then a few minutes in advance. Consider setting a timer to show him how long the call will last. Set him up with an independent activity that should hold his attention during the call. If possible, take regular breaks during the call to praise him for not interrupting. Then cap it off with a reward at the end. This positive reinforcement need not be a toy or treat. In fact, it should ideally be one-on-one time with you. Why? “Setting aside a few minutes a day of individual, focused playtime with your child can help them get their need for attention met in a more positive way,” writes play therapist Katie Lear. “Kids who get this one-on-one time often feel more secure in their connection with their parent, which can make it easier to tolerate time apart. This can help cut down on interrupting in the long run.”
Connect in the moment: One of our favorite strategies for handling interrupting in real time: Ask your child to put his hand on your wrist when he feels he needs your attention but you are busy. You respond by wordlessly placing your hand on top of his, letting him know that he is seen, acknowledged and loved—and that you’ll return your complete focus to him just as soon as you can.
You could also verbally validate your child’s feelings, taking a moment away from your adult business to say something like, “You see me talking with Mrs. Jones and not paying attention to you. You want me to watch you on the monkey bars but I’m not. This feels really bad to you right now. I see you.” Per Dr. Becky, this validation transforms you and your child from adversaries into allies and collaborators.
Next, get playful: Kennedy suggests taking a second to get silly. You might say to your child, “I see you! You’re busy over there on the monkey bars. Are you going to transform into an actual orangutan? Is this playground going to become a zoo full of wild animals? Wouldn’t that be bananas?!” Getting playful reduces tension and reaffirms your bond. “Now I can hold that boundary because there’s more softness all around,” says Kennedy. “Because through connection, I’ve increased the likelihood of cooperation.”
Then hold the boundary: Give your child a concrete sense of what you expect from them and what will happen next, but continue your conversation with the other adult. Per Kennedy, clear and direct explanations, “help a child feel in control, which helps them act in control.” Be specific about what you will do to hold the boundary. You might say, “I see you! I’m going to talk with Mrs. Jones for another few minutes while you go on the swings. Then, when I’m done, I’ll come give you big pushes.”
Last but not least: Model the behavior you want to see in your child. Notice when you interrupt them, your partner or others. “Make a point of saying ‘excuse me’ or apologizing to your child for interrupting when it’s really necessary to do so,” writes Lear. “When you notice your child using good manners, heap on the praise! Children tend to repeat the behaviors that we pay a lot of positive attention to…” As the famous parenting mantra goes: Catch them being good.