As the mother of three kids under the age of eight, Susan Lieberman knows a thing or two about interruptions. “When my six-year-old wants to tell me something, she wants to tell me now,” she says. But as a family therapist who runs workshops on parenting, she also knows this is normal behaviour for children. “They’re not doing it to be annoying or obstinate, they’re just really excited. Everything is huge in their world.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should relinquish your right to finish a sentence. If parents are giving their children enough time and attention, kids should not be allowed to interrupt, says Lieberman. So how do you get them to stop? Here’s our age-by-age guide with tips and techniques.
What to expect: Children under three aren’t mature enough to control their impulses, so it’s unrealistic to expect preschoolers not to interrupt. But these tots are able to hold a thought for a few seconds and, with proper coaching, up to a few minutes at a time — though not much longer. “Ten minutes is an eternity for them,” says parenting coach Terry Carson.
Strategies to try: Start by teaching that interrupting is rude, and if your child must butt in, the polite way is to say, “Excuse me.” Then reinforce the polite behaviour with positive feedback, like “I love how you said ‘excuse me’ and waited.” Once those magic words become habit and kids are able to consistently wait for 15 seconds, increase the time incrementally, says Carson.
If a child often interrupts conversations at the dinner table, Lieberman suggests using a version of the “talking stick” — when a person is holding the salt shaker or some other designated object, it’s his turn to talk. Alternatively, she recommends setting five minutes on a digital timer to help children wait their turn. (For kids who are still learning how to count, try a sand clock or visual timer, which will help them see how much time is left.) And be sure to explain that there are times when it’s acceptable and appropriate to interrupt, for example, when a child who is potty training needs to use the bathroom.
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Ages 5 – 6
What to expect: If you prep them ahead of time and provide an activity to keep them busy, at this age kids should be able to wait for 10 to 15 minutes.
Strategies to try: Set children up for success by letting them know what to anticipate and how you’d like them to react. “I tell my kids, ‘When you see Mommy take the phone and go into her office, that’s the time for you to go downstairs,’” says Lieberman. She will have something ready for them to do – a game or a video – until she finishes her conversation. If a child prefers to be close by, like Lieberman’s older daughter, you can ask her to touch your hand instead of interrupting you, and then place your hand on top to indicate you know she’s there and waiting. “I always acknowledge her, but I don’t stop my conversation,” she says.
Providing entertaining examples of conversation do’s and don’ts did the trick for Julie Luceno when her son Matthew, now nine, was in grade one. First, she and her husband demonstrated speaking at the same time and interrupting one another, which Matthew thought was hilarious – he couldn’t make out a thing they were saying. Then they demonstrated taking turns talking. “This really worked. I occasionally remind Matthew about it and it makes him laugh. We explained that it is very important to let someone finish talking or we might miss something interesting,” says Luceno.
What to expect: Past the age of seven, children should have enough self-control to curb the impulse to interrupt.
Strategies to try: Rather than constantly reminding them not to interrupt, use a hand signal (“Talk to the hand”) or simply ignore them, says Carson. It can also help to ask your kids how they would like to handle interruptions as a family, instead of imposing your rules on them, says Lieberman.
Or try the technique that Mira Miller-Couillard uses with her three kids, Zoe, 13, Sarah, 12, and Josh, nine. “When they were small, I used to say, ‘It’s not polite to interrupt’ or ‘You didn’t let me finish,’” she says. “Now if they cut me off, I stop and don’t finish my sentence. I’m done.” It works; if she abruptly stops talking and shoots them a look, they usually realize they interrupted her, apologize and let her continue.
“My kids are the centre of my world, but they’re not my whole universe,” she says. “And I’m allowed to speak, too.”
What parents can do to help:
Use self-talk. When you feel your frustration level rising with your child’s constant interruptions, work on your own reactions, says Lieberman. Dispel the negative thoughts by telling yourself, “I know she’s not trying to disregard my conversation; it’s just that something feels very important to her.”
Help kids keep track of their thoughts. Mom of three Miller-Couillard has a great way to avoid the inevitable kid lament: “But now I forgot what I wanted to say!” She’ll ask her nine-year-old to write down the topic or to cue her with a word or two (school, the dog, what’s for dinner) so she can remind him later.
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