Many people assume that psychologists spend all day telling people how to feel better and cope with life. In fact, junior psychologists themselves sometimes make this assumption. They think they are supposed to be spending most of the time in session talking, giving advice and providing information.
Which means they completely freak out when they can't think of what to say. I remember this feeling very well!
While giving good advice, helping with strategies and providing good psycho-education IS part of therapy, it's not the most important thing psychologists do.
The most important thing psychologists do is to ask good questions.
Not the cliche "what do YOU think about that?" question. (I never ask that, I know it makes clients want to kill you :))
But other questions. Really good, specific and smart questions. Lots and lots of them.
Asking the right questions in the right situation - and doing it session after session - helps people feel cared for, figure out what they need and what to do. It helps them learn to express themselves, seek out the right advice, get the exact reassurance they need to cope and how to plan out coping strategies. Asking the right questions is the secret sauce the best therapists have, whether they work with adults, kids or teens.
Unfortunately, outside of the therapy room - people don't ask each other good questions very often. In fact, people often don't ask any questions of each other at all. This is a huge shame, because asking the right questions can change lives.
1. When you ask questions of a sad/worried/upset/mad person (child, teen or adult) - it shows them you care about them.
Nothing shows interest, care and compassion better than asking questions. On the flip side - if you don't ask - people think you aren't interested or don't care. Sure, you often hear about teens who are annoyed at their parents "bugging them" with "too many questions". Let me tell you, I see plenty of teens in my room who are hurting far more because their parents never ask them anything except "how was school?"
2. When you ask questions of a sad/worried/upset/mad person (child, teen or adult) - it helps you know how you can help
When someone is hurting, we will often we jump in with advice, suggestions and reassurance before finding out what is really going on. We try to make things better before we really have the details. To help effectively, we need to ask way more questions than we think we need to. One of the traps for junior psychologists is to start providing intervention before really knowing exactly what is going on, when, how and why. Parents and adults working with young people have exactly the same problem. Asking lots of questions will help you help young people way more effectively.
3. When you ask questions of a sad/worried/upset/mad person (child, teen or adult) - it helps them talk, express themselves and figure stuff out.
People - old and young - who have an opportunity to talk about what their think, what has happened to them, how they feel and what they want - cope better than people who don't have that same opportunity. Asking kids and teens questions gives them mini expression practice oppportunities - this is absolutely invaluable for the development of their emotional well being.
Of course, asking good questions is easier said than done.
At my "Calm and Confident" seminars for parents of kids and teens, I have slides with lots of question ideas. When I first put these slides together, I was worried I was over-explaining things. The questions seemed pretty basic.
But my most frequent request after seminars in the past 12 months is - "can I have a copy of those question idea slides?".
So this blog post is for all those people. Thankyou for asking. Here are 55 question ideas for you. I hope they help you think about just one extra question you can ask that young person having a hard time. Don't under-estimate how valuable it might be to someone's life.
(Disclaimer - you will have to adjust these questions according to the age of the young person, the relationship you have with them and the situation you are in)
What do you wish was different?
What’s the hardest part about that?
Are you thinking about anything bad that might happen?
What was the sad bit there for you?
What are you thinking might go wrong here?
What else has happened that makes this worse?
Do you know why you feel upset about this, or do you just feel upset?
What is the worst thing about that?
What else is hard about that situation?
Do you feel more sad/hurt/angry/worried about that or some other feeling?
Are you worried about people thinking this?
On a scale from 1-10, how worried/upset/mad/scared/hurt are you about this? Okay, so how about compared to this other thing?
What is worse - this OR this?
What makes it better this OR this?
If I was you, I might feel worried about this - how about you?
I can imagine other people feeling pretty hurt about that - how does it feel?
Are you feeling more angry/hurt/
How does that affect you?
When you aren't busy/when you are lying in bed at night - what are the things that make you most upset?
Is there anything about this you feel embarrassed or ashamed about?
What are the some of the things you're worried people might be thinking about you?
How often are you feeling upset about it?
What do you wish you could change about yourself in all of this?
What makes you feel a bit better about all of this?
What's the most frustrating part of it all?
What do you think people don't understand about this?
What would make this a little better?
What is coming up in your week that will be hard because of this?
When was the last time you cried about this?
What else is going on for you that doesnt help?
What are the worst times for you?
If I did THIS to help - would that be good or not?
Why do you think that made you so mad/upset/worried?
Can I talk to someone about this for you?
Is there someone else you would like to talk to about this?
Has anything else helped in the past?
What helps you cope?
This might seem like a dumb question, but do you know why you are most upset about that?
What do you most wish was different?
What times of day are the hardest for you?
When do you most think about this?
Is there anytimes you feel better about this?
What can I do to help?
How does this affect you?
What things trigger that off for you?
What do you wish was different about other people in this situation?
If you could change anything about that, what would you change?
Is there anything you feel like you need to keep a secret/hidden from others?
What are the three things you keep thinking about this?
What are your options?
What would be one step forward here?
Is there anything you can do to change that
If you had unlimited powers to change things, what would you do?
Our online resource Calm Kid Central has videos and tip sheets for parents/carers on questions to ask worried or upset kids. There are also helpful videos and activity sheets for children on "Thinking Mistakes" (how to catch and understand worried thoughts) and "Our Danger Checker" (why we get worried). To find out more, click below.