Keeping lid on interruptions

Helen O’Callaghan says there are techniques to teach children. 

CHANCES are you’ve been spending a lot of time with your young children over the holidays and it’s really struck you how prone they are to interrupting your conversations.

If they’re under two, you might as well resign yourself to being interrupted, says psychologist Niamh Hannan (, but if your pre-schooler is between three and five you can begin to make some impression on their interruptions.

Parents, engaged in a full-blown conversation with a friend or on a work call, can react quite sharply to a child who interrupts them, says Hannan. So it’s good to know why children interrupt. “They may not remember you’ve asked them not to. They don’t like your attention being taken away from them. They’re looking at Mammy chatting to a friend, it’s all over their head and they want to be part of it.”

Plus they’re egocentric at that age — the world revolves around them — and they’ve got a different concept to adults of what’s important.

“It might be really important to them to show you the picture they’ve drawn.”

Their sense of time is also different. “The parent might say, ‘this will just take me five minutes — I’ll talk to you then’ but that might seem like three hours to them.”

Hannan suggests a useful technique to educate children from age three up: Teach them to say nothing, come to you the parent and touch your hand. The parent then puts their other hand over the child’s hand.

“This reassures the child — it says: ‘I know, I have registered, I am acknowledging that you need my attention. I will be with you very soon’. You hold the child’s hand until you’ve finished what you’re saying [to your friend] or what another person is saying, you then excuse yourself and turn to the child for a couple of moments,” says Hannan.

For this strategy to succeed needs a bit of practice, as well as patience and consistency on the parent’s part. “If you ignore your [interrupting] child, they’ll just escalate. You want your child to learn respect and manners but, for that, you need to treat them with respect. Children see us [adults] interrupting each other and talking over each other all the time — they learn these cues from us.”

With this technique, Hannan says parents will slowly get longer uninterrupted spells as children understand what’s important and what can be kept until later. Once a child has mastered waiting a little longer, you can put up one finger to indicate you’ll be with him in one minute, two fingers to signal two minutes and so on.


If you want to put your attention elsewhere, get your child involved in something first.

Use the interruption rule — quiet touch on your arm, you respond, they wait a little, be consistent.

As they get older, chat with them about interruptions and respect.


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