Let’s talk (if we can) about interruptions

Knock, Knock

Who’s There?

Interrupting Cow

Interrupting Cow W…


Is that a joke in your house right now? Or maybe a little more like a theme? In recent conversations with a couple of different parents, I’m hearing that children are interrupting conversations on the regular, not with mooing, though…with screams and screeches, repetitive pleas for attention, and sometimes with smacks or bites.

What to do? Especially when things like pausing your conversation and letting your child know you can be with them in a moment…or letting them hold your hand and sit in your lap while you finish your conversation…or giving them a note pad so they can ‘write’ down what they want to talk with you about…fail miserably?

I wish I had a tidy answer, a solution or a turn of phrase that would immediately bring your child satisfaction in quietly waiting for you to finish your conversation…but I don’t. Unfortunately, interrupting is something that some children experiment with more than others, but most children do go through this phase to some degree (don’t we all?). If it is a persistent issue in your house, I encourage you to do two things…zoom in, and zoom out.

First, zoom in.

Is there a pattern to the interruptions? Maybe it happens at a certain time of day or during a certain type of situation? For example, does it happen on work calls? It could be helpful to give your child the heads up that you are going to be unavailable in ten minutes when your call starts, but you can give them some undivided attention and care right now. In other words, slow down, let them know what’s going to happen, and then fill them up. Then give them some options for things they can keep themselves occupied with while you are on your call. Invite them into the process of problem-solving this issue.

Or maybe it happens at a particular time of day…is your child hungry or tired? Are you? As I witnessed clearly today, when a parent’s resources are low, children seem keen to really dig into boundaries and testing. It’s not coming from a place of malice (I promise!), but more of a “do you still hold this boundary (love me?) when you are emotionally pulled away a bit?” And that’s what happens when we feel poorly…hungry, tired, sick, or emotional…we pull in and away a little, protecting ourselves. That’s not at all a bad or wrong thing, but children feel it. And when we pull away, they lean in. So, make sure you’re taking care of your own physical and emotional resources, as best you can, as well as meeting theirs.

I would also add that it is important to look at your own behaviors in terms of interruptions. In a busy house, with lots of things to get done and to be expressed, interruptions may be a part of communication…either between you and your spouse, or between you and your child. It might help to make a concerted effort to model how you would like for your child to make bids for attention. For example, you might say to your wife: “I see you and Miriam are chatting. When you’re done, I have a question.”

And I suppose the last piece of zooming in would be approaching this behavior with a sense of wonder…what on earth is going on in your child’s head when they decide to interrupt? Starting with a sense of curiosity, instead of immediately leaping to “omg, this is maddening! She’s doing it deliberately to get a rise out of me!!!” can give you enough of a pause to slow down. You may realize you have been bopping from one thing to the next to the next to the next and your child is just in desperate need of a little connection (or sustenance). Or you may well discover that nope, she really is doing it to get a rise out of you…but that little pause can give you the opportunity to respond instead of react. And I’m going to talk about ways you can respond, but before I do…

Let’s zoom out a little.

One of my favorite child developmental theorists when I was in school was Urie Bronfenbrenner. To be honest, a lot of the reason was because I loved saying his name. Try it: Bron-fen-bren-ner. Fun right? But I also love his theory. In it, he reminds us that there are all kinds of outside influences (he calls them ‘systems’) impacting our children, some (like you and your immediate family and caregivers and your ideas about parenting as well as siblings, peers and friends they see regularly) affect children directly. And, of course, each child’s individual temperament, health, proclivities, interests, etc. will play a role in how people relate to him or her. But it goes significantly beyond that, recognizing that the interactions parents and others within their microsystem (say, at your workplace, your place of worship, your gym, your child’s school, the grocery store…) will impact your child indirectly because of the way we are shaped by our experiences in the world. And, going further, all of those things are influenced by the family’s place in the world: in society and culture. And then throw in life shifts and changes (like moving, starting school, getting a new job, divorce (cough…pandemic…) …all of these things play a role in shaping your child’s development.

I bring this up in the ‘zoom out’ conversation to just remind us all that life, as much as we have gotten used to it, is still up on its ear. It hasn’t even been a full year since just about everything we knew and counted on as predictable and stable got scrambled to one degree or another. (One year of our lives, all of some children’s lives, half or a third of others…) Some of us have lost loved ones, all of us have lost predictability and certainty. Our cultural values and norms have been tested by not only severe economic impact, but also political and racial unrest and reassessment. Our systems have been shaken to their core…our core, and our children’s core. On top of all of that, we’ve all had big changes to the way we move in the world…from grocery shopping to working to dining out to playdates and visits with extended family as well as classes and school. It’s rattling. And if we’re rattled, so are your children.

Okay, so you’ve zoomed in and out. You have empathy and understanding. You slow down and prep before you make a call or start a conversation with your spouse; you give your child options to be occupied while you are otherwise engaged. You follow through with attention when your conversations are over.

But your child still interrupts, and interrupts with a little gleam in their eye that says “Yes, I know this bothers you…and I like that.” Gahhh!!! It’s maddening! Your child is delighting in, well, interrupting you (moo!). It is delightful to have power over your parents, those all-powerful people, and when you are shrieking loud enough for the neighbors to hear, or hijacking work calls, you’re definitely powerful.

As I said, I don’t have a magic phrase or move that will work every time, but I know that consistency in your response will decrease frequency. I looked around online, quite a bit actually, but didn’t find a lot of variations on the theme of being as nonreactive as you can, acknowledging the interruption/bid for attention, and then going back to your conversation. I love how Janet Lansbury laid it out in one of her articles:

So, this little girl is interrupting… let’s say when her parents are talking together… What I would do is you hear her the first time, Oh, she’s asking for something, or she’s calling me. “Hi, I’m going to talk to your dad now, but I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. When we’re done, I can’t wait to hear what you want.”

Go back to your husband, breathe, hold your own energy. Don’t get pulled and tapped into by your daughter’s energy. Again, not being reactive. Continue as best you can talking with your husband.

And now she tries again. Maybe you let that second one go because you’ve already responded to her, but let’s say it continues. You could look at her, you could put your finger up as in, Give me another minute please, letting her know that you hear her. You can say, “Wow, you can’t wait to tell us.”

Keep going back to what you’re doing. This is not ignoring her, it’s being very respectful, but it’s letting her know that she doesn’t have this power to ignite you. That you are a separate person with boundaries. You have your own pace, and your own needs and wants, and decisions that you’re making in that moment.

After you do give your husband this moment to finish your sentences, or whatever it is, then I would turn to your daughter and say, “What did you want? I can’t wait to hear.” Oftentimes, children will forget, or they actually didn’t want anything, which is of course interesting and really shows us even more that it’s just a feeling that she has. Let it be her feeling, and not your feelings. (My emphasis.)

And I will add here that if children are hitting and biting as part of their interruption, to remember that it is an impulse…I still clench my teeth when I’m angry and have the impulse to lash out, but I don’t because I’ve got impulse control. Children’s impulse control systems are still developing. That doesn’t mean it is okay for children to hurt you; not at all, but keep that fact in mind, if you can. Block the hit or bite if possible, and let your child know it is not okay, removing yourself from the situation for a short time. And when you come back, you can say something along the lines of “I know you wanted my attention and were maybe angry and frustrated. I cannot let you hit/bite.” When everyone is calmer, you can talk with your child about alternative strategies for expressing anger. (And if this is something you are struggling with in your house and would like more specifics on, please let me know!)

Yep, this is a boundary issue, and the best remedy for a boundary issue is providing a consistent response, even when…no especially when…children are leaning hard against those boundaries…and remember, this, too, shall (MOO!!!) pass.

And, of course, I don’t want to let a Saturday pass without a reading from the Parent’s Tao Te Ching. It’s one that I really needed to hear today. Maybe you did, too:

28. Transforming the World

The world insists on achievement and progress
and it is full of enmity and strife.
Can you see all this and still help your children
maintain their trust and hope and peace?

Can you accept the world as it is,
yet live according to a different standard?
Can you let your children see
a way of living
that transforms,
and loves?


If you complain about politics,
and gripe about taxes,
and stew about the sorry state of things,
your children will learn to whine instead of laugh.
If you can see in every moment
a chance to live,
and to accept,
and to appreciate,
your children will transform the world.