How to Teach a Kid to Stop Interrupting in Three Steps

Unfortunately, suffering interruptions is how you mold a tiny, undeveloped brain that into a self-regulating adult mind.

by Dave Baldwin
Originally Published: 

While trying to write this story, my toddler interrupted me seven times. It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of parenting—the endless barrage of interruptions and mindless questions. Unfortunately, suffering interruptions is how you mold a tiny, undeveloped brain that into a self-regulating adult mind.

“Expecting a 3-year-old toddler not to interrupt is a little much,” says Gloria DeGaetano, founder and executive director of the Parent Coaching Institute, a Seattle-based organization that trains educators, childcare directors, counselors, and social workers. “They’re going to interrupt. They’re simply not coherent enough to not interrupt, because their brains are going in all different directions.”

But you can limit those interruptions, and DeGaetano’s been teaching parents how to do it for more than 25 years. Here’s how to teach a kid to stop interrupting constantly, in three easy steps:

Set Reasonable Expectations

Look, your interrupting, inquisitive child is not deliberately trying to break you. “They simply don’t have the self-regulatory pieces within their low brain to control their impulses,” says DeGaetano. “Everything is spontaneous because their low brain is melding so much.” So getting upset will get you no where.

There are steps you can take to minimize the interruptions (more on that later) but the first step is to fully embrace the reality that your kids really aren’t trying to drive you crazy. And even with training, “at 3- and 4-years-old, it’s almost impossible to expect them to not interrupt occasionally.” So keep your expectation in check. Your kids won’t come out of training with the social skills of a 25-year-old.

Take Turns Speaking And Listening

Kids won’t know how to carry on normal conversations if you’re not conversing with them. And the data suggests that, if you’re doing it, you’re probably not doing it enough. “The research is quite frightening,” says DeGaetano. “A lot of parents are spending maybe 10 minutes per week total in actual conversation with their kids.” So start off by modeling good give-and-take by engaging in conversation with your kids.

DeGaetano recommends turning the conversation into a game, where everybody takes turns speaking and learning how to listen. “Set a timer for two minutes and say: Mom has two minutes, you’ll have two minutes, and then I’ll have two minutes. And everybody practices listening without talking or interrupting.” Parents can play anywhere, says DeGaetano ⏤ around the dinner table, in the car ⏤ but the goal is to teach kids restraint when they feel the urge to interrupt. Practice makes perfect.

Practice In-the-Moment Signs

No matter how much time you spend coaching your kids on how and why not to interrupt, they still will. Which is why it’s helpful to work on several signs they can use instead, like raising their hands or putting up their pinkies when they feel the urge to interrupt (some experts recommend a hand-squeeze, which is kind of sweet). They can also try sharing their thoughts with a doll or teddy bear until you’re available.

Which technique you use doesn’t matter, so long as it lets you know that your kid would like to speak ⏤ and it isn’t so annoying that you lose your cool. Remember, though, you can’t expect a toddler or preschooler to hold a thought for very long—maybe 30 seconds, tops. “As soon as they put their pinky up, wrap [your conversation] up, and really appreciate that they didn’t interrupt,” DeGaetano says.

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