Why Kids Interrupt and What Parents Can Do About It

Kids interrupt their parents until they learn not to do so. It’s just a normal part of being a child and having something important to say. Children find it hard to wait. That’s why parents should work with kids to teach them when it is okay to interrupt and when it is not. Teaching children not to interrupt means giving them the tools that can help them wait their turn, such as a signal that means, “Soon I will finish and then I can listen to you.”

Sometimes kids interrupt because they don’t realize they are being rude or inconsiderate. At other times, kids interrupt because they feel that what they have to say is very important—so important that it must be said right away. Finally, kids interrupt because they want attention. And when you’re deep in conversation with someone else, it feels to children like you’re not paying attention to them.

Kids will interrupt you when you’re speaking with another adult, when you’re talking on the phone, or when you are working. They do this because they don’t know that what you are doing is important to you. Children tend not to understand that other people have feelings and needs. They are aware only of what they feel, of their own needs. So when kids have a burning need to say something, they are going to say it.

Kids interrupt as does this girl whose mother holds up hands as daughter tries to distract her

Parents can help children learn not to interrupt. One way to do this is to help kids understand that all people have feelings and needs. A parent might turn to a child who is interrupting to explain that, “Mrs. Smith is just like you: she has strong feelings about what she wants to say and do.”

Once children begin to sense what others feel, it becomes easier for them to wait their turn to speak. When children do control the impulse to interrupt, praise them. They are showing empathy and warmth for another person.

It can take a long time for a very young child to learn not to interrupt. Parents can expect the lesson to be ongoing with lots of discussion between parent and child. It’s important to remember that being patient with children when they do interrupt shows your empathy for them. This is the best possible way to model for your child consideration and kindness for others.

Why Kids Interrupt

Child psychologist Dr. Fran Walfish, who serves as regular expert on The Doctors and CBS TV, says that kids interrupt their parents for the following reasons:

Wanting Attention: The most common reason kids interrupt is that they are seeking attention. When children are not stopped from interrupting at home, the child often goes to school and repeats the same negative behavior in class. This is the kid who frequently gets his name on the board and is often in trouble with teachers because his doesn’t give other classmates a chance to answer questions. He is constantly calling out answers and interrupting while sitting on the group lesson carpet in kindergarten or screaming out quickly from his chair in the older grades. Interrupting is his way of trying to get attention.

Poor Example at Home: Children model their parents’ style of communication and poor (or good) behavior. Often parents don’t have their radar tuned up high to notice when kids interrupt because interrupting is part of their family style of communication. But no one feels heard, understood, validated, or fully accepted when this unhealthy dynamic functions in families.

To Relieve Anxiety: When children feel like they don’t get a chance to talk within their family they either give up and retreat inward, or they will interrupt others to grab the opportunity to relieve their anxiety about their need for validation.

The Pressing Need for Attention

Carole Lieberman, M.D., agrees with Walfish that the most common reason kids interrupt is that pressing need for attention. “Maybe they’re hungry, or they want you to get them something that they see nearby. Maybe they want you to stop paying attention to whomever else is there and pay attention to them,” says Lieberman, psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror.

But Dr. Lieberman notes that there can be more subtle reasons behind a child’s interruptions. “It may be, for example, that what you’re talking about makes them uncomfortable. It may be a topic that makes them feel scared or sad or annoyed and they don’t want to have to keep listening.”

What To Do About Interrupting

It’s natural to feel some irritation when a child interrupts you at work or during a conversation. You may feel like shushing your child. Lieberman suggests that instead of reacting, parents should first ask themselves what is really going on inside the child’s head. “Do they have what they feel is a pressing need? Ask them what it is. If they say they’re hungry, you can tell them that, after they apologize for interrupting, and after you are finished with what you’re saying or doing right now, you will get them something to eat. If they have no specific pressing need, then ask them how they feel about what you were talking about. Ask, ‘Does it make you uncomfortable when we talk about these things?’”

Walfish says that preschoolers and young children often interrupt because they are still learning appropriate social skills. They depend on their parents to teach, guide, and socialize them. She suggests sitting down for a talk with your child when both of you are in a good mood. “Tell her that interrupting is rude. Say that from now on you are going to ask her to correct the behavior on the spot. She will have to find acceptable words to say in a respectful tone of voice. For instance, she can say, ‘Mom, I forgot to wait for my turn, I’m sorry I interrupted you.’”

Dr. Ari Yares, a licensed psychologist, parent coach, and nationally certified school psychologist, agrees that speaking with your child when both of you are calm is a good idea. But Yares also suggests that at the moment the child interrupts, it’s important to ask if there’s a safety concern, “In other words, an appropriate interruption,” says Yares, “If it isn’t, calmly explain that you are speaking with someone and when you are done, you will talk to them about whatever the issue is. It is important to remain calm when providing feedback and not escalate the situation. You can provide some attention through physical contact, e.g. a hug or a hand on the shoulder, which may help with the impulse to interrupt.”

When Kids Interrupt: Tools and Tips

  1. Talk About Necessary Interruptions: Kids can find it difficult to understand when and when not to interrupt. Offer examples of when it is okay to interrupt, for instance, when someone is hurt or in trouble. Ask your child to come up with other examples of necessary interruptions.
  2. Discuss Manners and the Right Way to Interrupt: Teach your child to listen for a pause in the conversation or to watch for a nod or a look. That is when it is okay for the child to say, “Excuse me.”
  3. Catch Your Child in the Act: When your child remembers to wait for the pause, nod, or look, offer praise. Children are thirsty for approval. If you notice her good behavior and say something nice, your child will want to do it again. It’s called positive reinforcement.
  4. Make Children Wait: When a child interrupts, don’t answer unless it is a necessary interruption. You may reassure the child, “I’ll be with you in a moment.” Then watch for an appropriate place to pause in your conversation. Now you can say to your child, “I’m listening. What do you need?”
  5. Agree on a Signal: Come up with a signal the two of you can use to communicate without words. The signal will help your child say “I need something” when you are talking to someone else. It may be just a nod, a gentle touch on your hand, a squeeze of the arm, or even a wink. When you do it back, you show your child that you know she needs you and that you’ll be with her soon. If your conversation takes longer than you expected, you can signal your child every few minutes or so, as needed for reassurance. This can help satisfy the child’s need for attention and help her control the impulse to interrupt.
  6. Make a Special Busy Box: Take a shoebox and fill it with toys and games that are only to be used when you are talking to others, speaking on the phone, or working. You can swap out the items for new ones every so often to keep the box exciting. When you’re finished with your conversation or work, put the box away. Remind the child that it’s only for when you are busy. The busy box offers a practical way to keep your child occupied so she isn’t so needy for attention, the main reason for interruptions. The child will come to look forward to your conversations as another chance to play with her busy box.
  7. Prepare Your Child in Advance: If you know you will be having an important phone or hosting guests, talk to your child beforehand. You might say, “Aunt Marie and Uncle Kenny are coming to visit. We will have lots of adult things to talk about. It may take a long time. Do you want to get out your busy box so you’ll have something fun to do while we are talking?”
  8. Model Good Behavior: When adults are excited about their subject manner, they too can fall into the bad habit of interrupting each other. That is why it is important to remember that your children are watching. Letting others finish their stories and thoughts without interruption teaches your child the basics of respectful communication. Parents should also take care never to interrupt children when they are speaking but to wait for a pause and say, “Excuse me,” before continuing.

How Long Until My Child Learns Not To Interrupt?

Learning not to interrupt is a long process. A toddler will interrupt because he has something exciting and interesting to say. The ideas just burst out. It never occurs to him to wait until you are not in the middle of something else.

A preschooler, on the other hand, just wants to belong. He wants to feel part of your conversation, to feel relevant. If you have a way to include your child in the conversation, do so. But you can still offer a gentle reminder that interrupting someone while they are speaking is rude.

Even when he interrupts, a child of 4 or 5 knows that interrupting others is rude. That is unless he has a very good reason, for instance your potatoes are boiling over. By age 7, however, a child knows not only when to interrupt but to wait for a pause or a nod and to begin by saying, “Excuse me.”

No matter his age, no child is perfect. There are bound to be times when your child forgets to wait, or doesn’t say excuse me. When it happens, take a deep breath, remind him what to do, and tell him that you will be with him, soon. If you treat your child with empathy, your child will come to respect others and learn to wait for an appropriate time to speak.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.