Managing Interruptions


Dr Kimberley O'Brien

Managing Interruptions

Engaging in adult conversation, for many parents, is a rare opportunity. With busy schedules, tag-team parenting and children in need of attention, brief connections with other parents and even your own partner, are often few and far between. Given the infrequency of such events, it is not surprising most parents are angered when children interrupt...on purpose...all the time!

Young children and patience

For children under the age of 8 years, the importance of patience is a difficult skill to acquire. Young children are impulsive by nature and being told to “wait a minute” is likely to be lost when parents are engaged in a frantic flow of words. Managing interruptions in a calm manner, requires planning and practice, to avoid a potentially positive exchange from going pear-shaped.

Helping children manage interruption

Interrupting, may take the form of ‘talking over others’,‘creating a loud distraction’ or physically pulling on a person to gain attention. Let’s face it, many adults do all these things to toddlers to encourage them to move on from one activity to the next, so it’s not surprising children try the same antics as they mature. Interestingly, however, the majority of school-aged students resist the urge to interrupt their teacher, while at home most children have no qualms about interrupting their parents. Based on stories generously shared by clients in the clinic, I know interruptions tends to peak when one parent returns home from work and everybody wants to talk at once. Unfortunately, children tend to bare the brunt of the blame, when parents are tired and decent communication seems like a thing of the past.

One of the best ways to help children aged 2-6 years learn to avoid “interrupting” is to give them some tools to manage it.

  • Firstly, set the scene. Help your child imagine where the interruption may take place and then role play some suggestions. For example, suggest your child holds your hand when they have something to say and squeeze their hand in return, to acknowledge their request. Alternatively, the child’s signal could be to place their hand on the parent’s knee, if the parent is seated, and in response the parent places their hand on top, as a silent gesture of recognition. These techniques are best applied in a social setting, when subtle signs are more easily recognised. Special signals between parent and child strengthen the relationship and far outweigh an angry exchange, eg; “DON’T INTERRUPT!” in the company of friends, which typically terminates the conversation anyway.
  • In the home setting, the whole family may wish to be involved in a role play where interruptions are rife. However, the role play should be conducted on a weekend when there is sufficient time to test out everybody’s ideas. Switching roles, whereby a parent plays the role of child, and vice versa, will help both parties see the situation from a different point of view. Giving the issue of interrupting a solid focus in the presence of all family members, doesn’t need to involve a stern warning. A role play will inject some humour into a situation and laughter will lubricate discussion around a sensitive family issue. Consider pausing mid-role play to ask for suggestions about how to fix the issue. Be open to ideas.
  • There are many ways to create change. Consider having more brief conversations, rather than one long discussion with the same person. Use a timer to set limits on one-to-one adult conversation and graph your child’s improvements in the ‘patience department’.
  • A visual graph on the fridge may be a source of pride for children and a reminder of progress. Imagine the difference when interrupting occurs every 3 minutes as opposed to every 3 seconds. Verbal praise after a successful social interaction should also be part of the equation, both at home and in the community.

Luckily the ‘interrupting phase’ for children is typically short-lived. As children mature and early adolescence emerges, conversations with peers far outweigh any desire to interrupt adult exchanges.

Parents are more likely to find themselves interrupting long phone calls between adolescent girls or cutting short late night social exchanges on Skype. In these circumstances, remember the time it took you to teach your children the rules of patience and respect...and remember to employ these social skills in return.

Think: silent signal, recognition in return and a pre-planned time frame to wind up the conversation.

Further Reading


Accommodating Hyperactivity in Children with ADHD

View article references


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