Helping children be patient when adults are having a conversation is a topic that comes up often with parents of young children, and can be a topic that surfaces over and over throughout childhood.
Facilitating children’s understanding around these social conventions so adults can get their needs met is an important part of parenting. As parents, we tend to either react impulsively based on our own frustrations or our unconscious “how-we-were-parented” maps, or we allow the child to rule the roost because we are worried about being too overpowering. It is a great benefit to children to model and expect that everyone’s needs are respected, including our own. These expectations provide a much-needed feeling of safety and consistency and go a distance towards helping children develop values aligned with caring for other’s needs as well as our own. As stated in Becoming The Parent You Want To Be by Davis and Keyser, “Learning social rules is an important part of children’s development… we can set limits in such a way that we respect the child’s need to explore at the same time we say “no.””
Respectful counsel in these frustrating moments can support children’s growing capacity for patience and cooperation. There is no quick fix, but with some tips about steps toward this goal we can prepare ourselves to make this easier on everyone.
We understandably want to finish our thoughts with other adults and sometimes have longer conversations before we attend to our children. This is especially true when we have so little time with our own peers. In any situation, being interrupted can be dysregulating and even more so with our children.
There are several reasons that children may interrupt. They may need something that is urgent, in which case we would want to respond immediately. They may have something on topic to contribute to the discussion, which might sometimes be welcome. They may have an idea or question unrelated to the topic. Or, they may just want our attention. They could also be drawn to understanding adult conversation. Adult language and social discourse have many nuances and norms that children can be curious and excited to learn.
Sometimes, it makes sense and is easy to incorporate your child into these discussions. However, expecting to always do that isn’t realistic or helpful for your child’s growing understanding and respect for others. In this article, we will look more closely at how to help your child understand and respect your needs to have these important conversations and reduce the number of interruptions over time.
In the early years, children tend to be more self-focused and they need some practice and context to understand and participate in the social conventions around conversation. This is a tough one for many families and the value we want to support is a mutual respect and interest in hearing all needs and contributions to conversations. There are many ways you can help children learn the social conventions around turn taking in conversations or patience while waiting to talk. This is a learning process that takes time and how we react to it can be the most powerful form of instruction in children's learning.
Consistent and compassionate limits and explanations of everyone’s needs over time offer children a much-needed sense of safety, security and understanding.
Recognizing and giving voice to the possible need behind the interruption is one step to help children understand that we see them and we understand what they are doing is because there is an important need. This doesn’t mean that we should act in ways that communicate the child’s need is more important than our own needs. Adults need connection and communication with loved ones just like children do. This communication can happen by pausing for a moment to turn our attention towards our child (unless the need is urgent), “I see you have a question/want to say something/need my attention, and right now I need to finish talking with your Dad/Mom/my friend… Can your question wait until we have finished our conversation?”
Understanding a little bit of brain development for young children often helps us with our own patience through the process of helping children follow these social expectations. Young children’s brains are developing and growing all the time. In particular, the areas of reason, executive function and learning social conventions are not as developed or practiced as our more developed brains. For many children, this means that having the capacity to stop themselves when asked is not always possible, making that expectation potentially unreasonable in the moment. In addition to this, young children’s thoughts and feelings are often mostly centered on themselves. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continually support children in learning how to respond in respectful ways with others, but it does means that our judgement about their capacity might be best left out of it. We can strive toward a goal of eventual capacity without expecting immediate and consistent compliance.
A kind but clear “I message” about what is going on reduces blame and can help inform children about the problem of interruption. “When you start talking while we are already talking, it makes it hard to hear the conversation I was having. This interruption frustrates me. Can you wait while we finish our conversation?” It may be that then, if there are additional interruptions, something along the lines of “I see this is hard for you right now so I’m going to help you find something else to do for a moment so I can continue my conversation.” Then taking a moment to help your child find something else to do, answering any immediate questions briefly as you do this. This might be followed with “I know you want our attention right now, and I will plan to come back and spend some time with you as soon as our conversation is over.” The need for more involved redirection such as this may only be present for a certain period of their development. As children age and limits/rules stay consistent and respectful of all needs, they will be better able to understand and cooperate with the expectations in moments such as these.
When Davis & Keyser discuss discipline in general, they state that, “The goal of discipline…is for children to learn how to act in situations because they know how to think about them. When children have been helped to make decisions based on empathy, understanding and their own critical thinking skills rather than on just what the “rule” says, they have a skill they can use in a multitude of different situations and carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
If your child is repeatedly struggling with the in-the-moment limit of asking them to wait before they ask a question, it may be a sign that conversation(s) with your child about this issue at another time might be an important next step. This could help for a couple reasons.
- When we try to address issues in the moment, often the heightened emotions of the child’s or adults’ frustration can get in the way of a reasonable conversation. Everyone’s ability to reason and take in information is impaired when we are upset, children and adults alike. This goes back to the brain research, which tells us we simply don’t have access to the reasonable thinking portions of our brains unless we are calm. Children, in particular, struggle with accessing rational thought when they are upset.
- Secondly, there is more time for explanation and understanding when you aren’t in the middle of another conversation with an adult.
Taking time to set expectations for future adult conversations can be another useful step towards creating some boundaries and social expectations without upset. Conversations like this may happen in the car, on a walk, during meals, at bath-time or any time when children are more likely to be tuned in to what you are saying. This is a time to problem-solve with children, giving them some power in how this might be addressed in future moments. For children who are able to problem-solve readily, asking how we can solve this problem could be the opening to a fruitful conversation. Some children may need some suggested strategies such as “Next time I’m having a conversation, I wonder if you would like to put your hand on my arm so that I know you want to ask me something next time, or maybe hold my hand? This way, I will know you need me and as soon as I or the other adult finishes talking, I can turn to you and find out what you need.” Another important topic for these conversations is helping a child learn the difference between "important" and "urgent."
Planning ahead with children can provide great benefits in preventing difficulties that might arise. Reminding your child just before you start an adult conversation is another helpful step, “We are about to sit down and talk for a bit. Do you remember when we talked about how you can let me know if you have a question or something to say?”
Consistency and repetition go a long way toward our goal of getting children more aware of our needs.