Ask Kids “What” Not “Why”
by Susie E. Caron (c) 9/7/2014
Parents want to understand their children and help them, but that often seems truly difficult. Whining, crying, complaining, and throwing tantrums are examples of children’s behaviors that adults don’t understand or want in their kids. However, in order to correct the cause, and hopefully to eliminate the behaviors, adults often ask the wrong question. They ask “Why?”
When faced with an unhappy, angry or temporarily out of control child, parents often try to ‘get to the bottom of the problem’ by asking the child “Why….?” If you have asked 'why', you may have recognized two things: there is often no ‘clear cause’ and punishing the child for the behaviors often makes matters worse. When this happens you are left wondering what to do. I suggest a much better way to handle kids when they seem agitated, before they become overwhelmed and ‘act out’ their feelings:
Notice early, validate the feeling, and ask questions beginning with 'What'.
1. NOTICE initial behaviors that indicate a growing state of upset in your child. In a heightened state of agitation, your child cannot ‘use words’ to tell you what is going on. So it’s important to NOTICE early when your child is showing the initial signs of being upset.
[If you miss the early signs, it is important to help your child to become calm before proceeding. With preschool, 1st and 2nd graders, I recommend a ‘time out’ for the purposes of self-soothing. (This is the actual purpose for time out in this situation.) It also works for later elementary school aged kids if necessary. Either way, once the child is calm, move to step two.]
2. VALIDATE your child’s FEELINGS. After you NOTICE your child is carrying some difficult feelings, it’s important to VALIDATE those feelings. To validate your child’s feelings you simply say what seems obvious to you. For example :“John, you appear to be upset.” Or “Mary, you look very angry.” “Chuck, I hear that you sound sad.” Don’t worry, your child will tell you if you aren’t correct about the feeling. The act of validating the child's feeling helps you to connect at a meaningful level and begin to gently ask questions.
3. Ask questions that begin with the word ‘WHAT’. This will help you to gather information to understand your child's struggle. If your child agrees with the feeling you used in validation, or mentions a different feeling, then use that feeling and ask questions that begin with the word ‘what.’ For example: “John, what is it that upset you?” “Mary, what happened that made you feel angry?” “Chuck what makes you so sad right now?”
[However, do not begin by asking “Why, are (or were) you feeling (or acting) that way?” The question “why” puts kids on the defensive. A defensive child is not what you are after. You want to ask questions that open the conversation. That way you can understand the difficulty and help your child develop more 'words to use' to describe feelings.]
Here are the reasons this is useful and helpful for both kids and adults.
1. You are more likely to intervene before your child feels so overwhelmed that adverse he/she behaves badly.
2. You are more likely to receive answers and to better understand your child.
3. Your child will be more likely to feel connected with you and that you really understand and care about him/her.
4. With your help your child will develop more awareness about his/her feelings.
5. With your help your child will develop and a ‘feeling’ vocabulary to use as he/she grows.
Remember young children cannot think about their feelings before they react to them. So when you first see, hear or notice grouchy, moody, or feeling-loaded behaviors, that’s the right time to begin to intervene, by gently noticing, validating and asking questions that begin with the word 'what'.
I love writing these articles to help you connect better with your children. If you found this or any of my other articles helpful please comment and share with your friends. Thank you.
Twee' Means You & Me
Susie E. Caron
Susie E. Caron MA,
Author, Blogger, Podcaster,
Christian, Wife, & Mother, helps build parent-child relationships, 1 blog, book & podcast at a time.
Welcome! I recently retired from combined careers in teaching, psychotherapy, and parent coaching to spend more time writing.
When I'm not busy creating books or articles, you might find me looking for dark chocolate or riding my beautiful horse Apple in the woods and fields of Vermont.
These articles are for educational and self-help purposes only and are not intended as psychotherapy.
If you experience unusual symptoms or discomfort please see your medical or mental health practitioner.
No patent liability is assumed for use of the information contained. The author disclaims any responsibility for loss or risk for use or application of this material.
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Blog Reviews & Thank You!
July 13 at 7:17pm ·
Just wanted to say that I love your posts about the different ways to connect/relate/understand your child. It has given me a new approach towards understanding my daughter and allowing HER to tell me how she feels instead of me suggesting to her how she should feel. Thanks Susie!