I remember just a few years ago, trying to have a conversation on the phone with a friend. All I could hear was, “BLUE CRAYON MAMA! BLUE CRAYON!” My little one was just 22 months old and excited to have figured out the color blue.
I really wanted to finish the conversation with my friend.
Although interrupting can be perfectly normal behavior for young children it is possible to help children develop patience and polite ways to join a conversation.
Why do children interrupt adults anyway?
The reason is actually quite simple: Children interrupt because either they are too young, impulsive, or they don’t have any tools for respectfully interrupting. Another key reason for interrupting is that some children don’t have skills or a set plan for how to wait.
Toddlers often interrupt because they are still learning to regulate their impulses. When a toddler has a great thought they want to share it, they don’t think Maybe mama needs to hang up the phone before she can listen to me. It’s more like “BLUE CRAYON! BLUE CRAYON!!!! MAMA—BLUE CRAYON!!!” (HEAR ME, SEE ME, I AM SO EXCITED!!!)
Preschoolers want to show us and feel like they belong. They want to participate in our conversations. For example, when I was discussing the town’s recycling policy changes with a friend, her 5-year-old son kept saying, “Bottles? We have lots of bottles, I like to recycle bottles.”
Children 6 years and beyond might see a different side of an argument, have a different perspective or a great story.
Here are five steps to help teach your child to stop interrupting:
Step 1: Model respectful communication + attentive listening
It’s a great idea to introduce turn taking and respectful communication, from babyhood and beyond. One of the easiest ways to do this is to model what we wish to see and use the language we wish to hear.
- Let a baby know that you will be picking them up instead of swooping in and doing it as a surprise.
- Explain to a toddler that play time is almost over instead of insisting they finish when you say so.
- Welcome children to share and finish their thoughts, stories and ideas without interrupting to correct, console or fix.
Step 2: Try a special code or hand signal
Back when my little blue crayon guy interrupted a lot, I started holding his hand gently as a signal to him that I “saw him” but wasn’t ready to listen yet. Over time we have been able to stretch that waiting time well beyond a minute.
Now that my kids are much older and in elementary school, we have two signals. One for short waits and one for letting them know it’s going to be a while. In that case, they know to go play and come back later—unless of course, it’s an emergency.
Extending a hand for holding, a special nod or some other little signal can be really helpful, especially if it is practiced or talked about ahead of time.
Step 3: Be mindful of when you must interrupt your child
Sometimes it’s inevitable to interrupt, when we interrupt another adult we tend to say, “Excuse me,” “Pardon me” or “Is this a good time?” It’s helpful to use the same respectful language when interrupting a child so they can learn to do the same.
- “Excuse me, I see you are playing, it’s almost time to go.”
- “Looks like you are having a lot of fun, I need to interrupt you and help you clean up so we can get to bed.”
- “Hey Johnny, I’d like to share something with you, is this a good time?”
Step 4: Respectfully ask your child to wait
Providing opportunity for children to learn to wait is important, but it needs to happen at a time when the child can actually succeed.
Explain to your child that you will be busy, that you will pay attention to them when you are done, and be specific if you can:
- “I will talk on the phone for a few minutes and then we can read that book.”
- “I need to tell your dad something and then I will come and find you. Here is a puzzle if you’d like to use it to pass the time.”
- “I need quiet time for 10 minutes, what will you do to pass the time? Can you find something or do you want some help?”
Step 5: Give it time + adjust expectations
The process of learning not to interrupt or to do so politely takes practice. My blue crayon yelling tot has grown into a happy and respectful 8-year old. Since he was around 3 years old, with some practice, he learned to tap my arm and say very politely, “Excuse me mom” instead of blurting out what is on his mind.
Sometimes I have to let him know I’m not ready to listen:
- “I need a few more minutes please.”
- “I will listen to you in a moment.”
- “I see you need me, and this isn’t a good time.”
- “Let’s talk after I’m done on the phone.”
- “I see you need to talk to me. I need five more minutes.”
- “Would you like to hold my hand? I’ll be right with you.”
Other times, it’s helpful to remember that growing children make mistakes and get excited. They are not interrupting to be rude or because they don’t care about you and your needs.
Interruptions can seem disrespectful but beware of using consequences or commands such as “Shhhhhh!” or “Zip it!” to manage this kind of unhelpful behavior.
While you may get a child’s attention and get them to stop talking, or bothering you, this does not create the opportunity to teach. Children will learn much more about taking turns, waiting, listening attentively and respecting others if you choose to model how you expect it to be done.