Asking children questions when they are distressed


Have you talked to an angry/worried/upset child or teen today?

If you are a child mental health or education professional probably the answer to this is (using the words of my 11 year old): "duh!"

A significant part of our work with young people (the exact amount depends on our role of course) requires us to hear young people tell us about something distressing. 

They might be frustrated about something which has happened, worried about something coming up, annoyed by something they think is unfair, sad about something which has happened, jealous of someone else, embarrassed by an event - and so on.

I find it interesting to notice my reactions when young people tell us about their distress.   Despite many, many years of working in this role I still notice my instinct to want to just "fix it fast" when I hear children's distress.  This is not surprising perhaps - there are so many pressures - time constraints, professional roles, parental expectations - for me to make this child/teen feel better as quickly as possible.

And then my "fix it fast" statements come out....

"You're okay",
"Don't worry",
"Calm down" or
"Let's solve this". 

Unfortunately while there is nothing wrong with me using these sentences sometimes, at other times they can be less helpful.  Part of the reason for this is that over time, repeated "fix it fast" statements from adults give a subtle but powerful message to young people - "being upset is NOT okay and I need to stop feeling like this ASAP"

There are many other helpful things we can do when kids tell us they are upset - in this article I'd like to focus on one possible response: asking more - and better - questions.

Here are three helpful things about asking children and young people good questions when they are feeling upset.

1. We potentially get more information - which means we can better support and work with them.
2. They get a strong message from us:  we care about what is going on and how they feel

(and ..spoiler alert...most important reason coming up)

3. They get a chance to practice talking about tricky stuff.

We know that children and teens who are skilled at telling people about how they feel, what happened and what they want - do better emotionally than young people who don't have these skills.  How do we help kids and teens get better at this?  Simple, we help them practice talking about upsetting things.  How do they practice it?  

By being asked about it.

But - what and how to ask questions when young people are upset?

Here are some of the things I think are important in this process.

Presenting a calm and relaxed front  

A neutral, interested and caring - but not anxious, irritated facial expression, tone of voice and body language tell children (both consciously and subconsciously) that they are safe.   

Doing something else while we are talking ( building something, drawing/colouring or playing a card game, stapling papers etc) - provided it doesn't come across as cold or uninterested - can be really helpful for some children/teens to lower the temperature of the conversation even further.    

Either way, taking a deep breath and relaxing our own body in order to present a calm but caring stance helps the conversation work much better.

Ensuring questions are appropriate for age and ability

Even children with excellent verbal skills are reduced to "I don't know!!!" when distressed.  

For this reason questions which are as easy as possible to answer often work well for kids who are upset.  For example:

  • Scale questions.  For example: On a scale of 0-10, how much does X bother you?  Using bad, worse and worst - where does this sit?

  • Using demonstration, role play or drawing.  For example: Can you show me how you felt? (asking a child to act it out or pick out a feeling face from a set of pictures or on a scale). Can you show/draw me what they did that was mean?

  • Using either or questions.  For example: Did you feel more upset about THIS or THIS?  Were you more angry OR worried? Was it THIS which happened OR this?

  • Taking a guess questions.  For example: I’m wondering if you are feeling angry and sad that your friends called you that?  Some young people feel X in this situation - is that true for you?

Ask about the positives.  

As "problem solving focused" professional we often get stuck on asking lots of questions about "what's wrong".   

It is really important to help children also talk about, be aware of and enjoy their strengths, the improvements, and the things which made the challenges easier - even if there are not very many.  For example:

  • What is helping?

  • What makes it easier?

  • Who has been kind?

  • What did you do well?

  • What made you feel better?

  • What helped you cope?

Question asking is a gift we give the children we work with

Imagine a child/teen who over their entire childhood has had repeated practices of discussing these ideas:  I felt this and this when this happened, this made it worse and better, this is what I could have done differently, this is what I wished had happened, and now I feel this.

Now imagine a child/teen who over their childhood has hardly ever had a chance to do this, and instead has had to communicate their distress without words.

These will be a very different child as they enter adulthood.

Asking kids questions takes time, patience, empathy and the ability to tolerate pain (it's hard to hear) but it is an incredible gift we give them.  And it is a gift which is often far more valuable that any advice we provide.

If you'd like to watch a short video/read transcript with more information about asking the right questions of primary aged children when they are distressed, you might be interested in Calm Kid Central, click below to find out more.