Frequent interruptions are a fact of life for the parents of young children. Preschool-aged kids seldom wait for their turn to speak, even when their parents are occupied with an activity or speaking to someone else. Though this behaviour can feel disruptive, it’s not intentionally rude; toddlers are only just emerging from infancy, so they still think that the world revolves around their needs. They also struggle with poor impulse control and reduced short-term memory function. If your toddler doesn’t “blurt out” her exciting ideas, she may well forget them. Compounding this issue, your child’s sense of time is still developing. This makes it hard for her to understand what you mean when you tell her to “wait a few minutes” before interjecting.
Due to all of the developmental factors outlined above, there’s no quick and easy way to stop your child from interrupting. Nonetheless, you can—and should—gradually teach her more appropriate ways of communicating her thoughts. If you use the parenting strategies outlined below, you should start to see positive changes in your child’s behaviour by the time she’s old enough to go to school.
7 Ways to Teach Your Child Not to Interrupt
1. Model excellent manners.
Toddlers are extremely observant. Their minds rapidly “soak up” information as they move through their environment, especially information about social behaviour. Your child will naturally look to how you treat her (and other people) in order to understand how she should handle social interactions. In other words, if you frequently cut her off when she’s speaking or interrupt your spouse in front of her, your child will assume this is an acceptable way to communicate.
To help your child learn good manners, try to limit your own propensity to interject when your child is speaking. Let her finish what she’s saying before you correct her or offer your perspective. If you do interrupt your child, make sure you apologize while mentioning the specific thing you did wrong, e.g., “I’m sorry I interrupted you; what were you going to tell me?”
2. Show your child how to get your attention without verbalizing.
To help your child get your attention without being loud or disruptive, show her a simple gesture she can use to let you know she has something to say. You might ask her to gently tap your arm if she wants to talk to you while you’re on the phone, for example. When she does this, put your hand over hers briefly and smile at her to let her know you’ve gotten the message. Some kids respond very well to this technique because it allows them to act on their sense of urgency. Likewise, your response will make your child feel acknowledged rather than ignored. Just make sure that you keep your toddler’s short attention span in mind: For this approach to be effective, you’ll need to respond to her verbally within a few minutes of her making the gesture.
3. Provide activities when you know you’re going to be busy.
Toddlers have a hard time entertaining themselves because their ability to plan activities is limited. As such, young children have a tendency to interrupt out of sheer boredom when the adults in their lives aren’t paying attention to them. Without mom or dad directing their activities, they can’t figure out what to do with themselves.
To minimize interruptions when you’re busy, try asking your child to pick an activity to engage in while you’re taking care of a necessary task. Give her a few suggestions based on things you already know she enjoys (like watching a particular show or playing a game) and let her choose the option that’s most appealing to her. Allowing your child to choose what she wants to do will give her a sense of control over the situation and prevent feelings of aimlessness.
4. Teach your child when interrupting is appropriate.
There are, of course, times when you want your child to seek your attention immediately. Let your child know when it’s okay to interrupt you, even if you’re busy; for example, if she’s injured or sees something unsafe happening. Knowing what constitutes an emergency and what doesn’t can help your child understand what should be said right away and what can wait for a few minutes.
5. Play “question and answer” games.
Playing question and answer games will give your child an opportunity to practice her turn-taking skills. Sit down somewhere quiet with your child and ask her an open-ended question. (This is a question that has no right or wrong answer, e.g., “Why is your doll your favourite toy?”) Let her finish her answer, then invite her to ask you a question. If she interrupts you while you reply, gently remind her that it’s not her turn to speak yet. Complete what you have to say, then repeat the exercise.
If your child struggles to master this exercise, try using a visual cue to signify whose turn it is. Take an object, like a puppet or stuffed toy, and let your child know that only the person holding the toy can talk. Pass the toy back and forth as you take turns asking questions.
Reading books about interrupting with your child can help reinforce turn-taking behaviours, too. Reading with your child will activate her imagination and improve her language skills, making it easier for her to understand the nuances of conversation.
6. Set aside some one-on-one time for your child each day.
Having a daily schedule helps kids regulate their behaviour. If you spend some time with your child each day at a certain time, she’ll know that’s “her” time. This will make it easier for her to understand that, at other times of the day, she won’t necessarily have you all to herself. It will also reassure her that she’s always one of your priorities, even when you’re busy.
7. Praise your child when she demonstrates good manners.
Praise is one of the best ways to encourage positive behaviour patterns. When your child successfully avoids verbally interrupting you or politely asks for your attention (instead of loudly demanding it), let her know how much you appreciate her consideration. Make sure you mention the specific thing she did well when you praise her (e.g., “Thank you for waiting your turn to speak when I was on the phone, that was really helpful.”)
Though teaching your child social skills may feel like a slow process, the lessons she learns as a toddler will remain with her throughout her lifetime. By giving her the tools she needs to communicate politely, you’ll set her up for social and professional success during adulthood. You’ll also make your home a calmer, more orderly environment in the meantime.