How to Teach Children Not to Interrupt

by | Jan 19, 2019 | Challenging Behavior, Tools for Mothers, Uncategorized

Q: When does your child most need you?

A: When you’re on the phone or talking to a friend (or both).

Sometimes it seems like the moment you are otherwise occupied, your child MUST, MUST, MUST talk to you, ask you something, or needs something desperately.

5 minutes before, he or she was happily occupied and probably wouldn’t have responded if you’d called their name.  However, now that you’re enjoying a talk with a friend or speaking on the phone with a service person, you are urgently needed right now.

The more you try to defer their request (“Just a minute, honey, Mommy’s busy) the louder and more insistent they can become.  It’s very frustrating for the both of you – your child is frustrated because you aren’t responding to them instantly, and you’re frustrated because they’re interrupting you when you’re doing something important.  Of course, once you’re talking to them – even to reprimand them –  they’ve successfully interrupted you and you’re likely to get them what they’re asking for just so you can continue with what you were doing.  Mission accomplished for them!

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have a conversation in peace and only interrupt it when you chose to?

There’s a neat technique that can help teach your child to wait until you decide to respond to them.  It takes a little time and discipline on your part, but once they learn it frustration for the both of you will go way down.

Use the ‘Wait’ sign.

American Sign Language is very helpful in communicating with your child, and teachers in preschool and the earlier grades often use signs to reinforce concepts or instructions given verbally.  Many moms also find signs helpful in everyday situations at home.

In American Sign Language there is a sign for ‘wait’ or ‘waiting.’  You hold both of your hands in front of your chest, palms facing you with all fingers extended.  You then wiggle your fingers for a second or two.  This signals to your child that you are recognizing that they need something, you’re not ignoring them.  You’re asking them to wait until you create a break in the conversation.  I would recommend you make the sign while you continue talking.

You need to teach the sign before you need it.

Children don’t magically respond to a sign at first, even if you have explained it and demonstrated it to them beforehand.  There’s a learning curve, but if you are consistent and teach it slowly, it may become your favorite tool when you’re busy.  I’d recommend the following steps when teaching the ‘Wait’ sign:

  1. Show your child the sign and explain what it means at their current level of language.
  2. Practice with them whenever you get a chance.  When they run up to you in the middle of your conversation, show them the sign while you continue talking, wait a couple of seconds, then praise them (“thank you for waiting – what do you need?).  It helps if you don’t make long eye contact with them while you make the sign.  Look briefly while you say, “Wait” and continue your conversation.
  3. Each time you practice, wait a second or two longer before you look at your child and respond verbally (“thank )you for waiting, what do you need?”) to them.
  4. As they become accustomed to you responding to them (you’re not ignoring them, they trust that you’ll help them in a moment or two), your child will be quieter and wait longer and longer.  You can finish your sentence or resolve your issue with the other person and your child knows he or she will get their needs met.
  5. As they become proficient in following your directive to ‘wait’ you can then look at them or not, it won’t matter as much.


This is a versatile sign, and I’ve seen many teachers use only one hand, fingers wiggling at a child while they use their other hand to do something else.  Do whatever works!

There are some potential problems to watch for when you use this sign, though.

The reason it works well is because you and your child develop a trust between you, an unspoken agreement: they’ll wait for you to finish because they believe you will respond to them soon.  You can’t ask them to wait and then forget that they needed you!  So no matter how interesting the conversation with your friend, or how important the phone call, your child needs to trust that you’ll be there for them shortly.

If you forget to respond to your child, he or she won’t learn to wait, and is likely to up the ante: resorting to louder and more frequent requests while you’re talking (Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…..!), perhaps hanging on you while pleading for your attention.  Nobody wants that!

You can also undo your teaching if you sometimes respond to your child when they’re interrupting you without asking them to wait.  If you sometimes let them interrupt you, and you sometimes make them wait, they won’t learn when or how to wait.  Be consistent – either decide you’ll respond to them whenever they choose, or decide to teach them to wait.  You get to choose.

Be sure to praise your child for waiting, letting them know how much you appreciate their self-control

Learning to wait is a very helpful skill for children to master, and it will serve them well in school and in life.

Be well!






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