Don’t Ask Children Why When They Are Upset.

Your child has been mumbling to himself for the past five minutes while doing his math homework; finally, he drops the pencil in sheer frustration. “Why are you so upset?” you can ask. Or your preschooler hurries down the stairs to you, tears running down her cheeks; “Why are you sad?” you ask.

Our intentions are good. We see our children face difficult emotions and want to know what triggered them (and therefore how we can help fix them). But, according to the Gottman Institute, instead of understanding the root of their problem, we can force them to defend themselves.

In this article, Stephanie Loomis Pappas writes that we should stop asking our children “why” they are upset at the moment, an idea outlined in Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlisch’s book How to Speak so that Children Listen … and Listen That Way . … Children will speak “:

While some children can explain their feelings at the moment, many cannot. Those children who ask why are only exacerbating the situation: in addition to their initial suffering, they now have to analyze the cause and come up with a reasonable explanation. Very often, children do not know why they feel this way. Other times, they don’t want to tell you because they are afraid that in the eyes of an adult, their mind will not seem weighty enough. (“What are you crying about?”)

Asking “ why?” We confuse them, and the main idea may be that they need to justify their feelings in front of us.

Think about what words you use when a friend calls you and sounds sad. You can say, “You are upset,” or “It looks like you had a day .” We often do not jump straight to the question “Why are you angry?” Even when 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 feel the same way. They feel this way because they think so.

I myself am to blame for this. My usual “What’s up?” it’s just as easy to say, “You look upset.” When they clap their pencil in despair, we could choose the words more carefully: “It looks like your homework today is very difficult.” This gives them confirmation of the feeling they are expressing and also gives them less pressure to be invited to talk about it. (“It’s so hard to multiply such large numbers!”)

Fewer whys can make us more approachable when our children deal with harsh emotions and help them feel heard and understood.


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