My 4 year old son misbehaves (will do anything for attention) when mom and mother-in-law are talking. Why, and what can we do?

He is our first (now we have a 10 month old, but the behavior has been going on for longer than that). He tries to get attention a little bit when mom and dad are talking and we work on politely interrupting when necessary. But the moment mom and mother-in-law are talking, he seems to explode, acts very naughty and will do anything for attention. Why? What can we do? Thanks for the advice.

Rest assured, this is not unusual and can be fixed with some patience and consistency. It is helpful to start by explaining in very concrete language what is expected of him when mom and mother-in-law are talking. For example, “I know it’s hard to wait when I’m talking to Grandma. When we are talking, you need to keep yourself busy doing something quietly and wait for us to finish before interrupting. If you need me, place a hand on my arm and I will let you know when it is okay to interrupt.”

Then, it is helpful to do a few things to reinforce this behavior. The first is praise, praise, praise when he is able to do any one of these things. For example, even if he is doing something else just for a few seconds while you are talking, stop the conversation to let him know, “What a great job you just did playing with your toys while Grandma and I talked! I am so proud of you – what a big boy you are!” Directly tell him what behavior you liked (e.g., playing with toys, placing a hand on your arm, being quiet, etc.) even if you only see a brief glimpse. If you think it would be helpful, you can promise a reward after if he is able to do this. For example, you can say, “Grandma and I are about to have a conversation. While we talk, I’d like you to keep playing with your toys and please don’t interrupt us. We will talk to you when we are done. If you can do this for 2 minutes (keep it short if possible as he practices), we will play a game with you/do a fun activity/give you a small reward!”

The second simultaneous approach is to ignore his attempts to interrupt. You can remind him once that you will talk to him when you are done if he can be quiet if you don’t want him to feel like you are truly ignoring him. After that, ignore anything that isn’t dangerous or harmful. If he does do something that requires immediate attention, calmly give him one warning and the possibility of a consequence (e.g., time out, toy taken away) and then be sure you continue your conversation so that this doesn’t end up allowing him to interrupt.

A word of warning – this will get worse before it gets better! Expect him to continue to escalate his behavior the first few times you try these strategies. Try to stay calm and stay firm. Keep practicing in short spurts. Eventually, he will get it!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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