Don't Ask Kids 'Why' When They're Upset

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Your kid has been muttering under his breath for the past five minutes as he works through his maths homework; finally, he slams his pencil down in obvious frustration. “Why are you getting so frustrated?” you might ask. Or your preschooler comes rushing down the stairs to you, tears running down her cheeks; “Why are you sad?” you ask.

Our intentions are good. We see our kids dealing with a difficult emotion and we want to know what caused it (and, therefore, how we might help fix it). But instead of getting to the root of their problem, we may actually be putting them on the defensive, according to The Gottman Institute.

In this piece, Stephanie Loomis Pappas writes that we should stop asking our kids “why” they are upset in the moment, an idea outlined in Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen...And Listen So Kids Will Talk”:

Although some kids can explain their feelings in the moment, many cannot. For those kids, asking why just makes things worse: in addition to their original distress, they must now analyse the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation.

Very often children don’t know why they feel as they do. At other times, they’re reluctant to tell you because they fear that, in the adult’s eyes, their reason won’t seem good enough. (“For that you’re crying?”)

By asking why?, we’re putting them on the spot, and the underlying message may be that they need to justify their feelings to us.

Think about the words you use when a friend calls you and sounds sad. “You sound upset,” you might say, or, “it sounds like you’ve had a day.” We often don’t jump straight to “Why are you mad?” Even if we ask a question, we tend to ask more about the situation (“Did something happen?” or “What’s going on?”) and less about why they’re feeling the way they feel. They’re feeling that way because that’s how they feel.

I am guilty of this myself. My usual “What’s the matter?” could just as easily be, “You seem upset.” When they slam that pencil down in frustration, we could choose our words more carefully: “It seems like your homework is extra challenging today.” That gives them validation for the feeling they’re expressing, as well as a less pressured invitation to talk about it. (“It’s so hard to multiply numbers this big!”)

Fewer “whys” may actually make us more approachable when our kids are processing tough emotions and help them feel more heard and understood.


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