Play Therapy with Dr Jen

Play Therapy with Dr Jen

Don’t ask! A Parenting Secret Most People Don’t Know

ID 100115760 © Viacheslav Iacobchuk |

If you’re a parent, then you are probably accustomed to receiving monosyllabic responses to many of the questions you ask your child.  How was your day?  “Fine.”  Why are you upset?  “I don’t know.” What happened? “Nothing.”  These types of responses can be frustrating for parents who typically then ask follow-up questions to try to get a lengthier, more meaningful response.  It may be surprising for some people to learn that when parents avoid asking questions of their children, the parent-child relationship improves which leads to a happier, more peaceful home, less defiance, among other positive outcomes.

Before I explain what parents can do instead of asking questions, let’s look at a couple of the reasons that asking children questions often leads to a verbal dead-end.  First, even if they are not yet sure how to interpret their own emotions, children are emotional- not rational, cognitive- beings.  It is not until adolescence that the brains of children are capable of abstract and analytical thought, and even then, emotions tend to over-power logic.  Interpreting and processing language, irrespective of content, is a cognitive- not emotional- task.  Therefore, even the most innocent of questions can give children pause while they attempt to process what is being asked, what it means, and how they should respond.  Another consideration is that questions suggest to children misunderstanding.  While adults view questions as an effective way to gather information, when children are asked questions, they perceive that there is a disconnect and they are not understood. 

Let’s look at an example to illustrate how simply not asking questions can help parents accomplish the goals of finding out more information (if/when the child is ready to share), connecting with their children, and even decreasing problem behaviors such as defiance.  Imagine a child who just got home from school.  As soon as he comes in the front door, it is immediately obvious that he is angry and upset.  He throws his books to the floor and yells, “I hate school!” One of his parents would likely then say something like, “Don’t throw your books.  Why are you so upset? Did something happen at school?  I thought you were liking school this year.  Isn’t your best friend David in most of your classes with you?”  Or a parent may ask only one question: “What’s wrong with you?”  or “What’s the problem?”  Either way, a communication disconnect is created.  The boy feels misunderstood before a dialogue has even begun, and that makes his mood even worse.  It is easy to imagine how the situation would devolve from there.

Let us now consider how this interaction might be different if the parents asked no questions:  The child comes through the front door, clearly angry and upset.  He throws his books to the floor and yells, “I hate school!”  His parent makes the observation, “You are upset” and then gives the child some time and space to process the words.  As an alternative response, the parent might simply reflect back in a neutral tone, without an implied judgement, what has been said so far, “You feel like you hate school.”  After a long pause the boy might say, “That stupid teacher always call on me to read!”  The temptation at this point would be for the parent to ask, “Why do you mind reading aloud?” or “You don’t like to read aloud?” or “Do you think you aren’t a good reader?”  Instead, the parent says something like, “You’re mad at your teacher” or “You’re upset about having to read aloud.”  He responds quickly, “Well yeah! The whole class is looking at me, and I can’t concentrate!” Of course, the conversation could unfold in many different ways, but these example responses demonstrate how NOT asking questions and allowing children to stay in that emotional space helps them feel understood which nurtures the connection between parent and child. 

If you are a parent who wants to try this effective no-questions strategy, be patient with yourself.  It may take a little time to get in the habit of asking fewer (if any!) questions, but it will be worth your while.  As soon as you start to ask your child a question, pause and think about what you DO know.  Think about not only anything your child has said but also his or her facial expressions and body language.  Restate anything your child has said and/or reflect the feeling you see. (Check out my post on Reflecting Feelings to learn how to best implement this skill.) If you have enough information to ask a question, then you have enough information to make a statement. 

It may be difficult to believe that making only this one simple change could yield significant results.  To these doubters, I say: give it a shot, and see what happens.  I would love to hear your success stories and anecdotes as you put this tip into action with your own children!  Send these as well as any hurdles you encounter to  Then keep your eye out for future blog posts that address common pitfalls and how to overcome these!