Originally written by me for Arizona Parenting Magazine.
QUESTION: Sherri from Chandler says her 4-year-old boy interrupts her whenever she uses the phone, which is about once a day. "If he can’t get my attention by talking over my conversation, he will resort to bad behavior." Sherri says she gives her son lots of undivided attention, so how can she stop the interruptions?
Why do children frequently interrupt adult conversations?
Since Sherri typically gives her son her undivided attention, he doesn't understand why that does not apply when she is on the phone or talking to another adult. It is natural for her son to TRY to interrupt these conversations. He is still learning when it is ok to demand attention and when it is not. It will take consistent reminders and possible disciplinary action to teach him good manners.
What are some methods Sherri can try to stop the interruptions?
When he interrupts, Sherri should tell her son that she will help him in a few minutes when she is off the phone. If he continues to talk over her or starts to misbehave she should clearly warn him that if he does not stop he will be sent to his room/given a time-out etc. Once she has given him this warning she must immediately follow through with it if he does not stop. Without discussion or yelling, she should put him in time-out or in his room (for about 5 minutes). If she tries to discuss the situation with him she will inadvertently be giving him the attention he is seeking, thus reinforcing the behavior. She will also be reinforcing the behavior if she gives multiple warnings without immediate consequences. Although Sherri's phone conversations may temporarily be cut short, if she responds consistently to this situation he will learn good manners.
If they don’t work then what?
If he does not stop misbehaving when she is on the phone she will have to escalate the punishment. Escalated punishment means that Sherri takes away whatever her son most covets. This is an example of when individualized discipline is critical. Some children do not mind being put in time-out; they may enjoy reading quietly in their room. For this child, escalated punishment requires the parent to take away coveted books or deny "reading time" before bed. Other children dislike being separated from mom/dad (the group) and for this child, a time-out or separation from the group will likely deter unwanted behavior. Although it may sound cruel, escalated punishment involves figuring out what your child most craves and taking it away (or withholding it) when he/she misbehaves. Parents will know they are on the right track if the child protests (and sheds a few tears) to the punishment.
Should she discipline him for the bad behavior he exhibits when he doesn’t get her attention? If so what form of discipline would be appropriate?
As indicated above, Sherri can start with traditional time-outs and if that doesn't work figure out what her son craves and take it away for short periods of time. After the punishment period is over it is very important to discuss the situation with him. Ask him if he knows why he was punished and explain what he did wrong AND what you expect him to do next time you are on the phone. For example, "you were sent to your room because you kept interrupting mommy while I was on the phone. I asked you to wait until I got off the phone but you didn't listen. Next time I am on the phone, if you really need something, silently tap me on the leg like this and I will get it for you when I am off the phone." If he taps you on the leg next time you are on the phone try to take a break in the conversation after a few minutes and attend to him so he knows you are still there for him. Over time he will be able to wait longer to have his needs met.
What should Sherry NOT do in this situation?
Sherri should not give in to her son's demands while she is on the phone. She should not give multiple warnings without immediate consequences. She should not just ignore his behavior and stay on the phone. She should not try to negotiate over and over with him or yell at him while she continues talking. This is frustrating for the person on the other end of the line as well.
Some parents might be tempted to lock themselves in a room and ignore the child. Would that help? Or would that just make the child angrier and cause him to break something or hurt himself for attention?
I think this would increase the child's anger and confusion. He will likely pound on the door and escalate his aggression to get Sherri's attention. However, it is understandable to do this once in a while if the call is urgent and short.
What other advice/resources can you share with Sherri?
Be patient and consistent and it will pay off.
Is the child likely to grow out of this on his own? Or is this a battle that must be fought?
Teaching good manners is an important part of discipline and boundary setting. It is your job as a parent to teach your child appropriate behavior. It is a parent’s job to set boundaries and your child's job to test them.