The Upside of Interrupting

Interrupting is a natural, and healthy, part of a child’s development as they test limits with any and all adults. A young child’s job is to find the wiggle room in relationships, helping them determine boundaries and limits with others.

Developmentally, a young child’s brain up until the age of six is working from concrete thought. Concrete thinking means children are only interested in the current surroundings: the experience here, people here, and the toys here. The young child does not think into the future about potential consequences. We often think and expect that our young children know how to reason and analyze, “Hmmm, if I interrupt my teacher and friends, they might get frustrated and tell me to “Wait”.”

Children are egocentric. They experience the world through their perspective only and believe that others see and feel as they do. As young children learn about the world, they feel as if they can control it. They have a difficult time accepting limits adults set that prevent them from showcasing their independence. This does not mean that children are selfish, simply that their brains are still developing relationship and empathy skills.

Knowing these two things, that children have difficulty thinking about future consequences of their actions and difficulty understanding our point-of-view, we begin to understand why children have a difficult time learning to wait and continue to interrupt others, even after being told not to. If we focus on the present moment with our toddlers, we can hopefully create more opportunities for learning between ourselves and our kids.

First, let’s keep our expectations open and curious. Although it is tempting to give a solid limit, “Make sure you say, Excuse me Dad” before you interrupt me when I’m talking on the phone,” this expectation might not be realistic. Children learn through making mistakes and we can expect they will not remember this rule every time we are on the phone or talking to other people. Provide consistent, simple, and gentle reminders. For example, if your child interrupts you by yelling and pulling at your clothes, take a deep breath and gently redirect: “What you have to say is important, but let’s try another way. Remember we practiced tapping my arm and saying, “Hey mom I need you.”” You can rewind and allow your child to try again. Practicing some of these skills in a role play with your child is a good way to teach and model respectful conversation.

We must model and teach our children language to decrease interrupting. Repetition and practice are part of the process. You and your child can develop a nonverbal signal. If your child is talking to you across the room as you are finishing a conversation, smile at them and hold up one or two fingers signaling one or two minutes. Noticing the child’s interruption, setting a healthy limit (i.e. waiting 1-2 minutes), and following through with the limit is important. Make sure you check in with your child after the 1-2 minute waiting time. We can teach our kids verbal and nonverbal cues: “Excuse me grandma”, “Dad, I need you”, and tapping us on the arm are good places to start. We model what we want our young children to do. They observe our interactions with others; be mindful of the way you interact, listen, and interrupt others.

Planning ahead is a useful strategy too. Brainstorm with your child or other family members how they might keep themselves busy during times you might not be able to give them attention. When you are finishing cooking or need to make an important phone call set aside time to get your child involved in activities they can do on their own (i.e. coloring, reading, blocks). You could use visual cues (i.e. picture cards) in a “boredom box” that your child can use to pick an activity when they need to wait for you. Filling their waiting time with positive and fun activities respects their need for action in that present moment.

Finally, it is natural to focus on our child’s missteps and miss times when they ARE waiting and getting our attention without interrupting. Focus on the little victories and catch your child when they least expect it. Praise and encouragement are very important. Interruptions are bound to happen, but as we recognize and respect this is one way our children are learning about relationship boundaries and limits, we begin to see the upside of it all!

Do you have any special strategies for teaching your child to stop interrupting?

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