It’s irritating—”Mommy!”—and annoying —”Mommy!”—whether you’re the parent being interrupted—”Momeeeeee!”—or someone trying to have a conversation with you.
Preschoolers almost universally go through a phase of interrupting adults while we’re talking to someone else, reading, working, or otherwise preoccupied. Older kids do it too— but they’re capable of knowing better and tend to do it more when the behavior hasn’t been addressed in the early years.
WHY it happens:
Two main things are going on here:
First, 3’s and 4’s tend to get super revved up to speak their mind, because they live in the moment—and the moments are bursting with amazing observations, urgent needs, endless questions, and a million other random things they need to share. The connection between thinking something and saying it out loud is practically instantaneous for them. (Meaning: No filter yet!)
Second, they’re not very good yet at seeing things from someone else’s POV. That ability isn’t in top working order ’til age 5 or later. It simply doesn’t occur to them that someone else (you!) has priorities other than what’s in their noggin at the moment.
Plus, preschoolers are so used to parental attention that they don’t even realize that butting in is uncool. Not, at least, until we point it out. Kids with poor impulse control can have a harder time refraining. But most kids can be taught to wait, within reason.
The payoff: a more polite and likable kid. Beyond that, having the patience to hold back from interrupting will help your child better manage frustration in other situations.
- Whatever you do, avoid immediately diverting your attention when your child interrupts. That just rewards the behavior you’re trying to nix.
- Teach the respectful way to interrupt. Develop a body language signal with your child when she has to tell you something. Maybe she reaches for your hand. Then you squeeze it to let her know you’re aware and will get to her. The brilliance of this fix: Your child feels acknowledged and “heard.” It also works better than simply teaching your child to say, “Excuse me.” With that, you risk her or him endlessly chanting “excuseme-excuseme-excuseme” while tugging your sleeve. Compromise: Teach saying one “Excuse me,” and then you raise a finger or put your hand on your child’s head to signal you got the message.
- Be realistic about the wait time. Keep in mind that you’re dealing with a preschooler. An hour-long talk or a check of every newsfeed in your phone? Not gonna work.
- Give a helpful reminder ahead of time when you can. If you’re about to talk to a friend at the park or make a call, say, “You need to play quietly until I finish.” A little advance planning helps: Make sure your child has something engrossing to keep him occupied and has been fed (or can help himself easily to a designated snack).
- Use positive and specific phrasing. Instead of “Don’t interrupt me until I’m done,” say, “When I’m talking on the phone, you can use these markers to draw me some pictures until I finish.”
- Make exceptions clear: “If someone is hurt, it’s okay to interrupt me to say, ‘Excuse me, it’s an emergency!'”
- If you do get interrupted unnecessarily, use body language to show it’s wrong. Shake your head without stopping to correct your child. Put your finger to your lips or point to a chair where he can wait. When you’re finished with your other conversation, pick up naturally (not punitively) with your child. The absence of your attention was agony enough.
- Heap on the positive reinforcement for exemplary waiting. If your child managed to fidget quietly through your long conversation with the mail carrier or a neighbor, point out how great that was.
- Avoid tactics that don’t work or send the wrong message. Learning to be patient is hard for a kid. Skip the scolding (“Hey! I told you to stop interrupting me!”), bribing (“If you stay quiet until I finish reading, I’ll buy you an ice cream.”), and threatening (“If you interrupt me, we won’t go to the park later!”).
- Play games that encourage waiting and turn-taking. Simon Says and Freeze Tag build up the waiting muscle.
- Realize that there’s one more possible reason for excessive impatience. Sometimes chronic interrupting can be a plea for attention. That’s not to excuse its rudeness. But kids, especially preschoolers, need lots of face-time with the grown-ups in their lives— and they’ll use the tools at their disposal to get it. Our screens, especially (and justifiably), can drive them bonkers!
Thank you for your patience!
Teaching kids not to interrupt can be tedious business. High-energy, high-enthusiasm kids might take longer to get the message than quieter, compliant types. But like any social skill, time and practice will coax it into coming naturally. You’ll soon be getting through complete sentences without having your train of thought derailed!