Dear Annie, I am looking for some advise or suggestions on how to teach my 6 year old about personal space. He is a very social child, enjoys being around kids adults etc. however he always seems to need to get the attention of others. When he arrives at school he yells, hugs and just acts silly. I am not sure if this is a nervous thing for him, but my husband and I have tried to explain to him about personal space and to try not to hug as some kids don’t like it, but it seems to go in one ear and out the other. There are time when I am trying to have a conversation with another parent or someone that I would just interact with on a daily basis and he always interrupts to get noticed.
Thank you for your time.
When he arrives at school he yells, hugs and just acts silly. I am not sure if this is a nervous thing for him, but my husband and I have tried to explain to him about personal space and to try not to hug as some kids don’t like it, but it seems to go in one ear and out the other. There are time when I am trying to have a conversation with another parent or someone that I would just interact with on a daily basis and he always interrupts to get noticed. Thank you for your time. Rachelle
Thanks for writing to me. I’ve always found the best way to look at behaviour that’s bothering you is to first try and figure out whether the behaviour is simply something that can be taken care of via a ‘teachable moment’ as it were, or whether it’s indicative of other issues.
The reason why it’s important to know is because finding out where the behaviour is coming from is the key to getting rid of it. If I was to ask you whether you have any other issues with your son, say picky eating, settling to sleep issues, temper tantrums and you can clearly answer in the negative as he displays none of these problems, then all we need to do is to find an appropriate teachable moment or two.
Find out if the behaviour is pointing to a systemic issue
If the answer however is yes, then all the tips and ‘moments’ in the world will fail to solve the problem because then the problem is not simply about him just interrupting. If that’s the case, then you’re looking at behaviour that is systemic which needs an entirely different approach, something I only do in private with my behaviour interventions.
So I’m going to assume this is simply a one off behaviour that bothers you. So what to do? First things first. Ask yourself the question, what is he getting from this behaviour? Answer: Attention, from you, from the teacher or parent, from other kids. He no doubt pulls on your pants or grabs your hand or runs around being silly demanding to be noticed. You react and if you’re like the rest of us when we’re interrupted yet again, you’re probably annoyed too. So he’s got everyone looking at him, including you being somewhat annoyed. What a great payback! What fun!
Kids do things because it works for them
The way to look at this is that kids do things for a reason, because it works for them. So ask yourself what works for him in this scenario? Well, for one he gets your attention and negative attention is just as good as the positive variety. Two, he gets everyone else’s attention too. Even if he doesn’t mean to be naughty, it’s still working for him and so he keeps doing it. So, to stop him doing it, you have to take away what he’s getting, which means giving him no attention for the behaviour, at all.
I know it’s easy for people like me to say give no attention and that giving him no attention is simply not practical when you’re trying to drop him off at school. I agree, so you have to set him up. You have to plan a series of events that put you in the ‘driver’s seat’ at a point in time when you know he’s going to play up. In order to make the ‘teachable moment’ stick, I’d suggest a good half a dozen set ups in a row. So, you need to pick a holiday when you’ve no obligation to the school and within a week you should be able to wave this problem goodbye. Having said that, you have to plan and plan well.
Ask people to help
I’m sure you’ve lots of friends that could help you out in this regard. You need to arrange to meet people with him in tow. Perhaps at the park or soccer field, wherever. You know he’s going to interrupt, so you need to have a place to put him when he shows you disrespect by interrupting (after you’ve given him a warning or two of course). That place needs to be somewhere you can see him but where he can be completely alone and safe, such as the car parked in the shade. Your friends are there to help you deliver a timely message and so you need feel no embarrassment about dealing with it.
Then follow the plan
When he interrupts, look at him and hold up your finger. Say to him “I’ve told you before you can’t interrupt mommy. That’s your first warning.'” Then look away, back to your friend and completely ignore him. He just isn’t there, even if he pulls on your pants. Give him 30 – 60 secs and if he doesn’t stop, hold up two fingers, look him in the eye and say, “I’ve told you to stop interrupting. That’s your last warning. If you don’t stop, you’ll go in time out.” Try to be completely calm and then ignore him again. If he doesn’t stop in another 30 – 60 seconds, remove him to the car and then go back and finish your conversation. On the way to the car, don’t chat or make eye contact. Simply remove him unceremoniously. Then go back to your conversation. This is really important. Make it long (a good 10 – 15 minutes) so he gets the message. What you’re really saying here is, if you insist on being impolite, you can do it somewhere else.
Set him up over and over again
Then do another five or so set ups just like the above in different locations. Don’t tell him you’re doing it for his benefit. Just bump in to people at different locations. Some could be at your house or at a friend’s. Just make sure you can deliver the time out in an appropriately boring place that lasts an appropriately boring time. He’ll soon figure out that it’s better to entertain himself quietly, than it is to bug you and spend 15 minutes bored to death.
Acknowledge when he gets it right
If he’s good, reward him by acknowledging your appreciation for his patience. The trick with this, like anything is to stay completely calm. You’re simply teaching him that you have just as much right to a conversation as he does. Later you can explain the finer points. He can interrupt you for emergencies only. If someone is about to back out of their parking space on a little person would be a good reason for instance. You can have fun discussing what is an what is not an emergency. Would hearing the ice cream truck be an emergency? Once he has learned his lesson, you can take him out to school and expect better behaviour. Be prepared the first time though to have to re-enforce, so eye a chair in the hallway that he could occupy in an emergency.
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Best of luck to you.