WHY TO AVOID “WHY” QUESTIONS WITH YOUR TEEN
When it comes to making requests and inquiries of their teens, parent language matters–a lot.
With my parent coaching clients, we do a lot of examining of the language, tone, and timing around parent-child interactions. We seek to discover points of intervention where the parent’s behavior–including word choice–has the potential to positively impact the trajectory of a moment, and by extension, the parent-child relationship.
What follows is one tool I frequently suggest to parents of teens about question-asking, because the way a parent structures their questions can have a big effect on their child’s willingness to answer.
“Why” questions can sound judgmental
In general, I suggest avoiding questions that start with the word “why”, as “why” questions can make parents’ genuine inquiries sound like veiled judgments.
Here’s a sample scenario of a “WHY” question gone awry:
Teen enters the kitchen dressed in fancier clothes than she usually wears to school. Parent wonders if there’s a special assembly or occasion and asks with genuine curiosity:
“Why are you wearing that outfit today?”
What teen might hear: My parent just questioned my outfit. My parent thinks I should be wearing a different outfit. My parent disapproves of my choice.
What teen might then think: I went to a lot of trouble to choose these clothes, and all I get is criticism?
How teen might then act: combative, standoffish, withdrawn, irritated, etc, all of which make sense given the teen’s interpretation of the exchange, which is way off target from the parent’s intention.
Replace “Why” questions with “What” questions
But what if instead of using a “WHY” question, the parent reworked the same inquiry into a “WHAT” question–and maybe also prefaced the question with a compliment or at least an observation to lower defenses.
“You seem to be more dressed up than you usually get for school. WHAT’s going on today that made you dress up?”
“I like your outfit today. WHAT’s the special occasion?”
Further, parents must pose the above questions without even the slightest hint of snark or sarcasm. Tone matters just as much as phraseology.
Of course, there’s still a chance for a sullen or ornery response from the teen–especially during the before school hours, but this approach makes it much clearer that the parent is NOT passing judgment with the question, which, in turn lowers the teen’s likelihood for defensiveness.
No one enjoys feeling defensive, and very little spurs disconnection in a relationship faster. To increase chances at teen responsiveness, parents should consider eliminating, or at least dramatically reducing “WHY” questions during interactions with their children and inserting “WHAT” questions to get at the same information.
This tool, by the way, works well when interacting with humans of all ages, not just teens!
RE-WORKING YoUR “WHY” Questions: Some Examples
Below are a few more examples for consideration
Instead of: WHY didn’t you hand in your homework?
Try: WHAT factors stopped you from handing in your homework?
Instead of: WHY do you need me to take you shopping this weekend?
Try: WHAT are you hoping to accomplish on our shopping trip this weekend?
Instead of: WHY do you want to apply to that college?
Try: WHAT is it about that college that makes you want to apply?
Instead of: WHY didn’t you text me to say you got there safely?
Try: WHAT made you forget to text me?
Instead of: WHY are you friends with that person?
Try: WHAT is it about that person that makes you appreciate their friendship?
Another Resource for re-working Questions
And since we’re on the topic of re-working a question, if you haven’t received my guide to improving your after-school check-ins with your child, you’re missing out. It’s all about re-working parents’ standard “How Was Your Day?” in order to encourage a bit more than the predictable “Fine” in response from your teen. And the suggestions for how to restructure your check in can apply to conversations with your teen at ANY time, not just in the car ride or kitchen after school.
You can get 15 Things to Say Instead of “How Was Your Day?” for FREE right here: