Upset kids? What to ask

Sad Boy being hugged.jpg

Has your child or teen told you about something today which made them angry, worried or upset?  If you live with a "big feelings" young person, then this is probably a very regular occurrence in your life.

How did you react?  It's interesting to note that we often want to "fix it fast" when we hear about problems by saying things like "you're okay", "don't worry", "calm down" or "let's solve this".  There is nothing wrong with these sentences sometimes, but other times they can be less helpful.

There are many other helpful things we can do when kids tell us they are upset - today let's focus on one possibility : asking more - and better - questions.

There are three helpful things about asking children and young people good questions about things that have upset them.

1. We get more information which means we can better support them.
2. They get a strong message from us:  we care about what is going on

(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 good at telling people about how they feel, what happened and what they want do far 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.

Here are a few tips for asking questions about something which has upset a young person:

Act calm and relaxed while asking. 

While we may not feel calm on the inside, we can try and make sure we act calm on the outside.  This often means we have to wait long enough until we and our children/teens are BOTH feeling calm enough to be able to talk about what has happened that was upsetting.  This may mean that this conversation needs to take place 30 minutes, 1 hour, a few hours or even a day or two afterwards. 

When inquiring about details, consider asking questions while doing something else (i.e., walking, building something, drawing/colouring or playing a card game or watching TV, driving in the car or preparing a meal).  This can lower the intensity of the conversation at times.

When having these conversations, it is important to show interest, care and concern but not look alarmed or overwhelmed.  Remember, our kids need to feel to trust us and feel safe with us in order to find out more details about what happened and strategies that might help.

Make sure the questions asked are simple rather than hard.  

Discussions around difficult topics may not only cause distress, but may be very difficult for children to readily share details about because they are less skilled at communication and conversation skills as we are. 

Try and reduce the response demands by simplifying questions such as:

  • Scale questions.  For example: On a scale of 0-10, how much does X bother you?

  • 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?

  • Or Make a guess.  For example: I’m wondering if you are feeling angry and sad that your friends called you that?

Ask about the positives.  

When things are hard, it is common for kids (and us) to focus on it and talk about nothing else.  This can be unhelpful for many reasons - it can further compound their distress and sense of hopelessness and get us stuck.  It is really important to help children and teens ALSO talk about, be aware of and enjoy their strengths and the positive things in their lives, 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 our kids

Imagine a child/teen who over their entire childhood has had repeated practices saying:  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 has had to communicate their distress without words.

These will be a very different children 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.