Dear Annie, I am looking for some advice or suggestions on how to teach my 6-year-old about personal space. He is a very social child and enjoys being around kids, adults, etc., but he always seems to need to get the attention of others. When he arrives at school, he yells, gives 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 times when I am trying to have a conversation with another parent or someone that I just interact with on a daily basis, and he always interrupts to get noticed.
Thank you for your time.
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 ask you if you have any other issues with your son, such as picky eating, sleep issues, or temper tantrums, and you can clearly answer in the negative because he exhibits none of these issues, then all we need to do is 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 systemic behaviour that 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, and from other kids. He no doubt pulls on your pants, 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, who are somewhat annoyed. What a great payback! What fun!
How do you stop a child interrupting: 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 draws everyone else’s attention.Even if he doesn’t mean to be naughty, it’s still working for him, 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.
Give no attention.
I know it’s easy for people like me to say, “Give him 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 got 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 have 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, so you need feel no embarrassment about dealing with it.
How to stop a child interrupting: 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 to 60 seconds, 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 30 to 60 seconds, take him to the car and then return to 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 to 15 minutes) so he gets the message. What you’re really saying here is that if you insist on being impolite, you can do it somewhere else.
How to stop a child interrupting: Set him up over and over again.
Then do another five or so set-ups just like the above, but 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 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 to bug you and have to spend 15 minutes in the car, 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, that would be a good reason, for instance. You can have fun discussing what is and is not an emergency. Would hearing the ice cream truck be an emergency? Once he has learned his lesson, you can take him to school and expect better behaviour. Be prepared the first time, though, to have to reinforce, so eye a chair in the hallway that he could occupy in an emergency.
I hope that’s helped you with understanding of how to stop a child interrupting. If you need more personal help, please visit my parenting services page.
Best of luck to you.
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