“Mom. Mom. Mom. Mooooom!” How to Manage Attention-Seeking Behavior

Photo by Jelena Jojic Tomic / Stocksy United / 790479
Photo by Jelena Jojic Tomic / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

You’re having a phone conversation with a friend. She’s sharing the nitty-gritty details of her life when your three-year-old decides they want to share the nitty-gritty details of their life—right now.

“Mom. Mom. Mom. Mooooom!”

You try to shush them, but there’s no stopping…The Interrupter. After cutting your phone call short, you then turn to your child who proudly announces, “I made this car go!” Yes, they interrupted your conversation to tell you that they rolled a toy car on the floor.

Why Your Toddler Interrupts Conversations

Before getting frustrated, remember that your child is three. Developmentally, they are far from skilled in impulse control. And although they have seen you talking with other adults (and perhaps even knows they shouldn’t interrupt in that situation), a phone call is different to their eyes and ears. Only hearing one side, a young child may not understand that you’re having a real conversation. Without another adult present, The Interrupter still thinks they have you all to themselves.

It’s also important to understand that a child lives in the present until about age seven, making them enthusiastic about what they want to share…in that exact moment. That means you may have a toddler who regularly interrupts your phone conversations or a six-year-old who butts into every conversation, seemingly oblivious to anyone but themselves (and on the flip side, asking them to tell you about their day winds up with frustrating “yes” or “no” answers).

The tricky thing for adults with an Interrupter? We want children to be respectful, but we also don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm for sharing with us.

Here are three helpful hints for traversing attention-seeking behavior in children:  

1. Plan for Phone Calls

Take care of your child’s needs before your call, and let them know you’ll be having a conversation with someone who is not in the room. Give your child a couple choices of what they can do while you’re on the phone: “Would you like to sit next to me and play with the puzzle, or would you like to sit at the table and have a snack?” Then take your call, but limit the time you spend on the phone.

Some parents like to keep a special box of “phone-call-time toys” hidden on a shelf or in a closet. These toys only come out during times when Mommy or Daddy are on the phone, and because they aren’t toys that are laying around all the time, kids will likely be distracted by their time spent playing with them.

2. Teach Your Interrupting Toddler a Signal

A nifty trick that works well is to have your child place their hand on your arm when they want to talk to you. You then place your hand over theirs to show them you know they are there and will soon turn your attention to them.

Like most stages of development, The Interrupter is only here for the short haul. With a little role modeling and advanced planning, your child will learn the skills that allow them to wait their turn.

As with anything we teach small children, this signal has to be done consistently in order for it to really sink in as a go-to tool.

3. Be the Change You Want to See

Young children learn social behaviors by observing the world around them. And because you are their world when they’re young, they are observing you all the time (no pressure!).

Given that, while you are trying to help your child through a particularly intense attention-seeking phase, do your best to be mindful of the times you might interrupt your child. If you do interrupt (sometimes those toddler stories take awhile to get to the point), simply apologize and ask them to continue.

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