Our four-year-old interrupts us every time we try to have any kind of discussion. This clearly was prompted by some earlier tension between us, but now he creates noise or causes a disturbance every time we talk, even if it’s about something happy or good. Any ideas?
You may be correct in your guess that your son is anxious about the tension between you and your partner. It is important that both parents agree that it is not okay to fight in front of their children, no matter how upset you are. A child really needs to know that both his parents are safe to be around and emotionally available to him, providing a secure foundation for his life. If one or both of you become loud and scary, he will be frightened and traumatized even if it isn’t him you’re angry at. When a parent is scary, a child needs comfort, and if that isn’t available to him, he is all alone in his fear and emotional pain. It is important that you have your arguments in private, away from your children. And this does not mean in loud voices when the child is supposedly sleeping in the next room. Children are just as upset when they can hear but not see what is going on. Disagreements are normal, and all couples have them. If you are unable to have disagreements without behaving hurtfully to one another, this is the time to get some help through counselling or through reading some of the excellent self-help books available, such as Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You? by Doctors Jordan and Margaret Paul.
If you are one of those mature couples who can work out disagreements without yelling, name-calling, or other hurtful behaviors, it is still rude (though not hurtful) to do this in the presence of a four-year-old who can’t understand the conversation and feels left out. Adult conversations, especially disagreements, usually go on for much longer than a young child’s attention span. However, when your son is older, it may be good modeling for him to see you work things out together, and even to participate in the discussion when the issue concerns the whole family.
Assuming you have reached an agreement that it isn’t okay for you to fight in your child’s presence, why don’t you ask your son directly if he’s worried that you’re going to fight or argue again? You may want to find out what he’s worried about – a divorce? One of you getting hurt? It being his fault? After you listen to his feelings, offer appropriate comfort and reassurance. Apologize for the fight, and promise not to do it again in his presence. Then keep your promise.
Your son’s interruptions of your discussions aren’t necessarily related to your fight. He may just be feeling left out. I am constantly amazed to see adults have conversations which totally ignore the presence of a child. With three adults in a room, it would be considered impolite for two of them to exclude the third from a conversation, yet we do it all the time to children. How often is the dinner table considered an opportunity for busy adults to communicate about adult business, ignoring the children, who have to sit and eat in silent boredom? A four-year-old may still interrupt, trying just to be part of things; an older child has often learned that his parents don’t consider this acceptable, so he just gives up. Then we wonder why our teenagers don’t talk to us about their lives! I think parents should find times when the children are busy or are not in the room to discuss adult business. The dinner table is a place for conversations which involve the whole family, not just the adults. If you don’t have time to do your adult business apart from the children, you are too busy! However, children do need to learn to wait their turn to speak, as long as they aren’t required to wait longer than their age-related attention span will allow – about one minute per year of the child’s age. As long as your adult conversations in your child’s presence are short, ask him to wait his turn to speak, teach him a signal to ask for attention (e.g. tapping your arm), ignore his other interruptions, and praise him when he taps and waits.