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Stop Interrupting Me!

Interruptions are a part of life. As adults we've come to expect some interruptions and, for the most part, handle them with a certain amount of grace. When we're on the phone, for example, and our call waiting interrupts, we either ignore it or ask the person to whom we're talking to please wait, our other line is ringing and we'll get right back to them.

Why is it, then, that the interruptions children cause are so much more frustrating? Could it be that, unlike call waiting, children interrupt 15 times in a single minute? Could it be they're more persistent than call waiting? Or is it simply that their timing is impeccable, and they seem to always choose the worst possible moment and the most ridiculous reasons to interrupt? The answer, I believe, is all of the above. And, as parents, we need strategies to help us handle our children's interruptions - not only for our sake, but also for theirs. As their primary teachers, we must help them learn to delay gratification and use good manners in doing so.

To begin, pick a neutral time to have a discussion with your child about interruptions and to state your expectations. (If your child is under 3 years of age, it's probably better simply to handle interruptions on the spot as described later in this article.) Having a discussion prior to implementing a strategy allows you to approach your child with an attitude of respect. You might say something like "I want to talk about what happens when I'm on the phone. When I'm interrupted I feel frustrated and annoyed. I'd like to come up with a plan so that I can finish phone calls without interruption. Do you have any ideas?" When we ask a child to help solve a problem, we engage her cooperation. In addition, children are also more likely to remember and follow rules that they help make up.

Honor and respect your child's ideas, but don't be afraid to make some suggestions yourself! Just because you ask a child to help solve a problem, it doesn't mean that you have to implement all (or even any) of his solutions. If, for example, the only solution your child can come up with is that he should be able to eat ice cream every time you're on the phone, then it will be your job to decline his "offer" and come up with an alternative!

Even if no solution is reached during this discussion, you will have introduced your expectations with regard to interruptions in a neutral environment. Then, it's time to have a strategy in place for the times when interruption occurs.

First, understand that changing your child's habit of interrupting may take time. It may also inconvenience you temporarily, in that you must be willing to interrupt what you're doing in order to handle the interruption appropriately! So, make a promise to yourself that the next time your child interrupts you - whether you're on the phone, having a face to face conversation with a friend, or greeting your spouse or partner when he/she gets home, you will take a moment to stop what you're doing and set a limit with your child.

Effective limit setting involves three things: stating a firm boundary or rule, telling the child what the consequences of ignoring you will be, and taking action.

I like to state boundaries with children using an "I" message: state your child's name (that gets their attention), then say "When you interrupt me, I feel annoyed, because it's rude. I would like you to wait until I finish ___________ (talking to your father, my phone call, etc.)"

This is likely to provoke another interruption (or at least make your child interrupt faster!) Ignore this "test" and continue with step two: tell your child what the consequence will be if she continues to interrupt. Phrase it as a choice: "Either wait until I'm finished, or you won't get what you want even after I'm through." This is just one possibility in terms of the choice you might offer, and won't work under all circumstances - particularly if what your child wants is something you're unwilling to let her have even after your finished. Another possibility might be: "Either wait until I'm finished, or you'll have to leave the room, you decide." Remember that the consequence is up to you - just make sure it's not too dramatic (children learn best when consequences are simple and short-lived), and that you're willing to carry through on it. Taking away an upcoming family vacation as a consequence, for example, is not only too dramatic, but it will also be clear to your child that you're not willing to carry through and are only issuing empty threats.

If your child still interrupts, then take action and implement the consequence.

The key to making the strategy work lies in a firm and respectful attitude on your part. When we get angry and lose control (although sometimes that's unavoidable) the child feels powerful. This makes him more likely to do the very thing you're angry about in the first place. When we maintain a matter-of-fact stance, however, the child learns that we are the ones in power - that we have a plan in place and are willing to follow through.

Another important component in this strategy is to understand that children test us to see if we mean what we say. So when your child begins to talk faster, or louder, or says "just one thing, then I'll stop" we must be prepared to move to the next step in the "plan." If we allow ourselves to get distracted, or even derailed from our original message, it only teaches the child that they can interrupt (as long as it's fast, or loud, or logical.)

When we're willing to take the time to teach our children not to interrupt, we give them life-long skills that will help them to thrive in the adult world.