Therapists are taught early on that we should avoid the cornering “Why” when helping a client. For the client, it may feel as though they are being interrogated and expected to have an answer to every one of life’s questions. What I’ve come to realize is that “Why” should be avoided as much as possible in our daily conversations, especially with children.

Our knee jerk reaction to a child’s mistake or inappropriate behavior is to immediately ask, “Why did you do it?” If we pay close attention to their body language and facial expressions, we will notice that they become tensed and somewhat distressed. Our first assumption is that the child was intentional in her action and attempting to hide the truth, so our response is usually stern and accusatory. Now let’s take a step back and think about the last time you were asked  the same question…how did it make you feel? Even for something as simple as, “why didn’t you return a call?,” you immediately feel as though you have to provide the best possible response in hopes that the recipient will validate your actions. And sometimes we find that we are not providing a truthful response.

More frequently than not, children may not have a clear explanation of why something happened. They usually respond with one of the following explanations:

  • I don’t know…
  • I didn’t do it…
  • Or proceed to place blame on someone or something else.

As adults, we have to be careful not to validate a child’s excuse-making habits by demanding a quick response to the cornering “Why?” As children improve their excuse-making skills, they start to find ways of not being accountable for inappropriate behavior or even basic mistakes. Ownership and responsibility are life skills that can be encouraged at a young age.

So how do we avoid the cornering “Why?” First, recognize that the child may need assistance in processing why they decided an action is okay. Talking about the behavior will assist the child in determining what’s okay and not okay in future situations. Secondly, if there is noticeable tension or stress between the two of you, suggest the coping skill of stepping away for a bit to a quiet space. This allows for you and the child to gather your thoughts to facilitate a calm conversation at a later time. Finally, if there is a consequence that needs to be attached to the situation, be sure that it is logical and not beyond the scope of the inappropriate behavior.

Ultimately, we want the child to understand that making a mistake is a natural human behavior and adults are here to help them to process and grow from the mistake. As we assist a child in processing various mistakes or not okay behaviors, we are encouraging the life skills of accountability, conflict resolution, and understanding personal actions and consequences. So the next time you find yourself wanting to ask the cornering “Why?” take a step back and ask yourself, “Is this a helpful question to ask?”

Be well