Breaking The Interruption Habit

One mom's attempt to notice the moments when we unconsciously interrupt others or allow ourselves to be needlessly interrupted.

djoronimo/Adobe Stock

I waited for my six-year-old, Opal, to be thoroughly occupied in her bedroom before I started to unload the dishwasher.

And yet, the moment I clicked the dishwasher door open—“MOM!!”

I headed down the hall and stuck my head into her room—“Yes?”

“Could I have a snack?”

I grabbed her a snack and strolled back down the hall to deliver it, making a mental note to put the snacks lower where she can reach them. If the hallway had better lighting, I’m sure you’d be able to see the tracks from our frequent travels back and forth to Opal’s room.

I told her that I’d be in the kitchen and that I really wanted to unload the dishwasher before lunch and before the baby woke up from her nap. “If you need me,” I said, “please come down the hall and talk to me. But only if it’s important. I’ll come check in when I’m done.”

I barely made it through emptying the silverware—seconds later—when, “MOM! I need you!”

I dashed halfway down the hallway and loud-whispered: “I’m in the kitchen, honey! Come talk to me in here!” (My speedy response was because I didn’t want her to wake up the baby.)

She yelled through her closed door, “What?!”

“I don’t want you to wake up the baby! Can you come talk to me in the kitchen?”

“But I need you!”

Sure, it would have been more effective to go in and talk to her in person, but I was determined to make the point that she should come to me and, more importantly, to let me finish my one attempted god-forsaken task. My (not entirely thought-through) logic was that I would hold my ground and she would have to really decide if she wanted/needed me badly enough to walk the distance to where I was physically standing. Opal had gotten into the habit of calling my husband and I from across the house for menial things, instead of coming to where we are to ask us. We’ve asked her ad naseum to come to us, please. Not to bellow demands. We’ve tried time and time again to convey to her what is worthy of interruption and what is not. My theory is since she can’t see us and what we are doing when she yells from the other room, in her world system, it doesn’t count as an offense.

No matter what I am doing, that thing it is interrupted an average of 3 to 5 times before completion, without discrimination. There are days where it takes the whole afternoon to scrub the toilet, a 30-second job. That particular dishwasher day, I was determined to complete my task without succumbing to our standard choreography of disruption.

It occurred to me later, however, that I did NOT communicate the shift in my perceptions with Opal, and my newly blossomed expectations of her. I had just made up my mind and got to my application of this decision.

Again, I loud-whispered from the hallway, “Sweetie, I really want to finish what I started. If you need me, please come to me. Otherwise, I’ll check on you in five minutes.” Good. Clearly communicated. I gave myself a mental thumbs-up and made my way back to the kitchen before she had a chance to intercept.

I picked up the pace, shoving coffee mugs into the cupboard, rushing to finish before the next interruption, when Opal arrived in doorway to the kitchen. She sprayed perturbed-ness in my direction with her glare.

“Mom, it was an emergency.” (She needed a drink.)

Sometimes I complete my day feeling like my time is more of a mosaic of shattered attempts at various things rather than a strung-together collection of whole moments.

There is much to be said about this scenario. It could all but be memorized and performed for future generations or anthropology majors as an example of the theatric mess-ups of human nature, the dramatic attempts of non-verbal communication that parents make. Moments that have a decent, genuine motivation but that are executed horribly. I knew all this as it was happening. If I had watched myself from afar, I would’ve confirmed my own ludicrous behavior. Yet, I just couldn’t continue the way things were, with the constant interruptions.

To break it down, my wish to be able to successfully accomplish a task from beginning to end was not unfounded. Sometimes I complete my day feeling like my time is more of a mosaic of shattered attempts at various things rather than a strung-together collection of whole moments. When my primary company is under the age of seven, I often finish my day mealy-brained, short-tempered, and ready for a drink. It feels like my IQ has dropped, along with my mindfulness. The whole thing is utterly fatiguing.

But there is more to it than merely being an inconvenience to me.

There is also the fact that it seems crucial to teach my daughter to respect that there are other things going on beyond the tiny bubble of her being.

What’s more, we live in a world of constant interruptions. (Even as I wrote this sentence, I had two text messages come in on my phone that I admittedly glanced at.) One of the great teachings for the next generation will be to educate them on the importance of focus in this fragmented world, of staying on task—and allowing others to stay on task—until completion.

In an article by Nicholas Carr in the Telegraph that studied the fragmenting effects of the Internet, he said, “When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, our brains can’t forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give distinctiveness and depth to our thinking. Our thoughts become disjointed, our memories weak.”


Simply put, chasing the tail of one interruption after another does make you less able to focus, less able to concentrate and see a notion, conversation or task through to the end. The same way following every thought that pops into your head during meditation would leave you feeling utterly drained and undisciplined at the end. The opposite of mindfulness.

In meditation, the instruction is to follow the breath. And when a thought arises, you label it “thinking” and go back to the breath. As tempting as it is to label Opal’s disruptions as “distraction” then disregard them completely and go back to the breath, that application doesn’t quite work when applied to little humans.

God willing, I will have many, many more years of having a child in my house. And, frustrating as it is, interrupting is what they are supposed to do—to find where they fit in the space. And what parents are supposed to do is give feedback and create boundaries so their children don’t run wild with endless stoppages and intrusions.

Terry Carson, M.Ed., certified parenting coach and educator, says kids learn in small steps. Their learning is more successful when a parent can chunk down lessons into manageable pieces. Each step must be mastered before the next step is taught. And it’s not up to the parent to decide when the learning should be mastered. It’s up to the child.

It’s important to be patient and allow children to go at their own pace. This could take a few days or a few weeks. Carson encourages parents to avoid making comments such as How many times do I have to tell you? and to watch your child for readiness before you move onto the next training lesson.

Ahh yes. It would probably be a good idea for me to practice being patient with Opal as she learns to be more patient with me.

When we don’t practice what we ask of our children, the hypocrisy creates a disconnection between them and us. (Opal checks to make sure my bed is made first thing in the morning, and long before I check to see if she made hers.) Modeling for our kids is the most obvious way of teaching what kind of behaviors we’d like to see more of in them, and makes our simple requests of them feel much more appropriate.

When looked at through this lens, there are endless ways in which I could set a better example of staying-the-course on an average day. I do have my phone close by most of the time and, admittedly, I check it when I hear the ubiquitous ding of an incoming text, even while we are in the middle of a game of Uno. The phone is a big one. I’ve even gotten in the habit of taking a quick glance at my email while in the car at a red light. She can see this from the back seat; she can feel the frivolous time-filling nature of this gesture. What may seem like a tiny distraction to me may be perceived as something that ransacks my attention and attunement with her. The quality of my time.

I’ve even gotten in the habit of taking a quick glance at my email while in the car at a red light.

The original intent of this article was to raise the question of how to employ mindful parenting in order to train my child away from her interruption-habit.

But, clearly, when I look at this issue mindfully, the real training that needs to happen is my own. And the real question is how can I practice being more discerning of what I do (and do not) allow to penetrate my space in any particular moment in order to offer her guidance and model good habits.

Opal said to me the other day, “How come I’m always the one who needs to do the learning? How come I’m the only one in the house who gets in trouble?”

Perhaps we’d have better luck if Opal felt we were in it together. We could notice the moments when we unconsciously interrupt others or allow ourselves to be needlessly interrupted, and perhaps we could have a laugh about it. One thing I have learned in my decades on this planet is that changing a habit is much more accessible when the whole thing is cushioned in the acceptance of our imperfect human-ness—not when a behavior is demanded into being by a frustrated parent (real or internal)!

This approach also gives more opportunities for tiny celebrations: Good job, Opal! I finished unloading the dishwasher without interruption! Let’s sit on the back porch with a lime popsicle and watch the baby pigeons flop around in the spruce tree. And…good job, mommy! You just made it through five stoplights without glancing at your phone once! A big hug is in store for you upon our arrival!

In my experience, success grows much more effortlessly from a child who already feels successful.