The problem is attention; they need more of it and they don’t like it when something or someone is competing for what belongs to them. In some respects, children have this sense that there is only so much of “you” to go around so they have to get all they can of your time and attention before someone else does. But as in all other parenting situations that require a plan, there are things you can do that are considered preventive steps for avoiding this problem, and things you can do that are fire fighting steps for when it flares up.
To begin teaching your child that she can’t walk up to you and immediately gain your attention during a telephone call, here is a preventive technique that I used as a parent and teach in my parenting class using role-play. Wait for a time when you know your child is in a good mood and open to learning. Getting to her eye level, lay down a firm and respectful boundary by explaining to her you will not interrupt your telephone call to speak to her when she wants your attention.
Help her understand that speaking on the telephone is important and you must give all your attention to the caller. Using a passionate tone of voice, tell her that you need her help each time the phone rings by going off to play with something special while you’re busy on the phone, and until you hang up. Then, when the call has ended, you can give her attention again. Ask her to help you come up with an activity or a special toy she will play with when the phone rings or when she hears you speaking to someone on the phone.
If you want to invest the time, money, and energy into this solution, you could even take her shopping and allow her to pick out a special toy that will only be played with when you are on a telephone call. Whatever you decide to do, your child needs to clearly understand what her role is when you get on the telephone. Your child isn't the only one with special behavior instructions for the call. You must be prepared to maintain your new boundary with three specific behaviors: Do not make eye contact with her, do not respond to her by speaking, and demonstrate affection in some fashion that will help her feel loved.
Notice that I do not intend that you ignore her, but to simply direct all your attention to the caller while connecting with her through your touch. This can include putting your arm around her, allowing her on your lap, stroking her hair, rubbing her back, or some simple contact such as placing your hand on her shoulder or arm. This sequence of actions sends the message to your child that your boundary is firm but you still love her anyway. The result will be that she feels loved and will eventually wander away, bored by waiting for her turn with your attention.
The next step is to engage her in role-play so she can see what your new boundary will look like. Explain to her that when you get on the telephone and she begins to speak to you, you will not look at or speak to her. Giving her this information in advance will prepare her for seeing it in action. Once you have prepared her with her special “telephone” activity, tell her that the two of you are going to play "make believe" with a telephone call. You may even engage a neighbor or friend to call you back so you can have a real call for practice. When the phone rings, get your child excited about her new role and begin the role-play. She will most likely be enthused over her new activity but may also approach you to get your attention or to test you. Maintain your three behaviors until the call has ended.
When my children were small and this process was new for them, they each tried to get me to break my concentration on the call in their own way. In the beginning, some of their behaviors were a genuine challenge. My middle daughter learned that I wasn't going to respond so she would pick up the extension telephone and join in on the conversation. My oldest daughter would find a way to engage the other two in mischief to see if it would get me off the phone. And my youngest, my son, would drive his small die-cast cars all over my body to distract me as I was talking.
Implementing these new behaviors require your patience and plenty of practice. I suggest doing one of these role-plays once every day until you get more comfortable with it. Be sure to give your child huge accolades when she goes to the activity and leaves you alone. From this activity and your strength in following through every time the phone rings, your child will learn to be more patient and she will also learn to recognize and respect the boundaries of others. She will also begin to learn how to implement her own personal boundaries.
What I’ve described here is preventive discipline and requires putting your energy and creativity into setting up a learning model in advance. It is also done using preparation, fun, play and practice. The only fire fighting discipline that is required is to implement the action plan every time the phone rings. You can then take this model and implement it in other situations such as when visitors arrive, when you are speaking to the other parent, reading, or even watching television.
Know someone raising older children who can use help? Tell them about my new audio download from one of my latest lectures to parents of tweens and teens by CLICKING HERE.