Tell us if this sounds familiar: You’re on a Zoom call and your kids interrupt with the need to tell you about a yellow flower or show you the drawing they made. You ask, “Can you give me a few minutes?” It sounds like a simple request, except you’re asking for young children to delay gratification, tell time, and think of someone else, which is not playing to their strengths. It doesn’t work and so you resort to shushing, yelling, or some variation of the two. There’s a better way.
“Kids are egocentric,” notes Kimberly Cuevas, associate professor of psychological sciences at University of Connecticut. Part of the obstacle is that their brains are developing; part is they lack experience. For them, as Cristina Atance, professor of psychology at University of Ottawa says, “It’s about the now.”
This is a challenge in non-pandemic times. But Covid-19 is here in the now and, the work-life balance has vanished. A child’s needs, however, remain the same. In fact, they’ve likely grown because of the stress, uncertainty, and loss. Think about it: They’re used to getting your response and reassurance, but now it can’t always happen and you’re asking for more self-regulation. “They’re not used to it,” says Pamela Davis-Kean, professor of psychology at University of Michigan. “That’s just not their world.”
Yet, you still need time for work calls and Zoom meetings. That requires a long-term plan that involves more than “Shusssssh!” or “Not now!” So what’s a stressed out, stretched thin parent to do? The key to getting a child to be quiet lies in adjusting expectations, being flexible, and having a variety of options, because no day or child is the same. There are no guarantees, but the following options can slow down the interruptions and the conflicts they can create.
Interrupting Children: What Parents Need to Understand
Expectation management is essential when working from home. Not every call can be high stakes. Young kids don’t have that stamina. When they come to you, resist the urge to ask, “Is this important?” It wastes time in its irrelevance – a kid isn’t being malicious and they think it’s important, says Megan McClelland, professor of child development at Oregon State University.
Parents want to be judicious with restrictions, because zero interruptions is unattainable. Let children know that they can come in if they need to and expect that they might feel a need to. If you can answer the question, it’s a solid 15-second investment. You can have older children write down their questions, then assess. Another good tactic: create a signal beforehand – finger to the lips, thumbs down – which you have explained means, “I can’t answer you right now, but I will when I’m free,” and then when you are, follow through on that promise. They’ll learn to trust your word and that can also lessen the stress, Davis-Kean says.
Afterwards, go big on praise. Tell them, “You handled that well,” or “Great question but not the kind to disturb me with.” You want to be flexible but still teach boundaries. It’s a concept that children older than five (and sometimes younger) can start to grasp, but they need help figuring it out. “They don’t define between urgent and emergency,” Davis-Kean says. It’s also important to recognize and react to both good decisions and when they give you time. “You’re continuing to tell them that your stuff is also important,” McClelland says.
Here are a few more tactics parents should keep in mind to prevent endless interruptions.
Remind Them That You’re a Team
You’re a family. You need each other, so let them know how important your kids are to the team. Remind them of this at dinner. Remind them that this is a hard time, and tell them how and when they did better than you with handling something. Talk about your plans but also theirs, and how you’re going to work together. This shows a shared value and provides motivation for them to take the responsibility. “They want to preserve the relationship,” McClelland says. And this is a foundation for creating a team mentality.
When you need time, they need something to do. “Sitting quietly won’t ever work,” Davis-Kean says. Distraction works best, and organized distractions are even better. A daily white board helps, Atance says. Use it to highlight when someone is working and for how long, for you and them, and where the open spaces are. Predictability in each day is good. If you can schedule regular calls at the same time, even better. Your kids will then know that, say betweem 11 and 2 is together time. “People know what’s coming,” says Davis Kean. “It puts a structure on unstructured time, and it makes people feel more comfortable.”
That together-time is important. Sandwich big calls with playing with them if it’s possible. They’ll feel connected and less inclined to interrupt. Make it physical and outside if that’s doable. At school, they go out every few hours, so look at it as your recess as well. “Everyone takes a break,” Davis-Kean says. “It calms everyone down.”
Give a Heads-up
Say at the outset that you have young kids who might interrupt a call or meeting. You’re dealing with other parents; empathy is on full, and being direct with your team or whomever you’re speaking with can alleviate the worry. “That will regulate your own emotions,” Cuevas says. And when an interruption happens, you’ll start on calm and have a better shot at remaining there.
For regular calls with other parents, you might suggest to schedule breaks. Trying to have a meeting with no interruptions can create anticipatory stress for you and your child, but if you build in two-three 1-minute rests over an hour, everyone involved can relax knowing what to expect, she says.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Don’t make the big call your kid’s patience debut. In non-stressed times, have them play independently for five, 10, or 15 minutes. Think about what they already like to do and build off of that, looking to stretch the time, Cuevas says. As a general rule, attention span is 2-4 minutes multiplied by the child’s age. For kids 5 and under, it’s good to have a mix, with something like coloring, a snack, running up and down the stairs, because one activity won’t hold them, Atance says.
Older kids more likely can be held with fewer things, but with all children, try not to default to screens; leave them as a third or fourth option. It makes them special, not expected, and you’re also building delayed gratification, a solid skill for them to possess, McClelland says. But…
Know When to Relent
When a call is crucial, this is when you change to a more serious tone, explaining, “I can’t be interrupted while my door is closed,” reiterating the team concept. If you’re judicious, your kids are more likely to respect the limit. And this is when you offer something extra special. It could be a FaceTime call with a friend, since social interaction with peers has disappeared. But it also could be when you give them a screen, and then not worry about it.
“We’re not made for this life that we have,” Davis-Kean says. “We’re just trying to get through.”