How do I answer that?

How Do I Answer That?

It's a decently big revelation during the first session on Active Listening: You don’t always have to answer your kids' questions. Go figure!

Some queries -- like "What should I do?" or "Where WERE you?" -- might not call for direct responses, at least not right away, not until you've given them a chance to form their own solution or process their emotions first. 

By way of explanation, let's use the example we work with in class: "Will the driving test be hard?"

Parents readily share what they might say:

  • "Don't worry -- you'll be fine! You're such a good driver."
  • "Why, haven't you prepared?" 
  • "No, the odds are in your favor -- there's an 80% pass rate." 
  • "Gee, I don't know. Why don't you check the Motor Vehicles Department website?"

Do you see any of the following in what you just read?

Communication Roadblocks often do just what their name implies -- they make it harder for the child to freely express her worries or to explore the problem at a deeper level with you.

These twelve kinds of verbal responses are the very ones professional therapists and counselors have learned to avoid when they work with children. These ways of responding are potentially “nontherapeutic” or “destructive.” Professionals learn to rely on other ways of responding to children’s messages that seem to carry far less risk of causing the child to stop talking, making him feel guilty or inadequate, reducing his self-esteem, producing defensiveness, triggering resentment, making him feel unaccepted, and so on.
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 55

So yes, by sidestepping the question, you may nevertheless satisfy your child's needs. The key is to pay attention to the WHOLE communication beyond her actual words -- consider her body language, facial expression, tone of voice, pauses and gestures.

If these signs tell you the child is having a problem, choose to Active Listen; if not, by all means, answer!

Let's delve into a few examples.

Where'd you go?

A mother's 7 year old son was having some anxiety around going to bed, especially when lights were left on in the living room. One night, he interrupted his mother in the bathroom saying it was still bright "out there." His mother tried to convince him that everything was fine and to go turn off the lamp himself; she'd wait for him.

After the boy ran off, the mother finished up and went to do a load of laundry. When her son returned to the empty bathroom, he started to cry. Upon her return, he demanded, "Where'd you go? Where were you?"

His tone, tears and flopping into his mother's arms conveyed more than simple curiosity as to her whereabouts. Instead of "Honey, I was just around the corner. Couldn't you hear me working the washing machine?" the mom could reflect back his angry upset and panic:

Mom: "Ohhh, you were so scared! You don't like it when I'm not where you expected me to be."

Son: "You told me you were going to stay right there while I went to the living room!"

Mom: "You were depending on me to keep my word!"

Son: "I had to go all by myself! You didn't even go with me!"

Mom: "You were sad and panicked and really wanted my company."

Son: "Yes, next time YOU turn out all the lights before bedtime! Not me!"

Mom: "You really want my cooperation with the lights -- that would make going to sleep a lot less stressful!"

Son: "Yes . . . ok, c'mon, tuck me in, Mommy."

Can you feel the boy's shift in energy?

Later (or then), you may want to explore the issue a bit deeper, using a Door-Opener, "Hey, handsome, the last couple of nights, there's been something bothering you about the lights. Wanna tell me more about that?"  

Keep feeding back the facts of what he says and the underlying feelings, and you both may find out what's really been troubling him (he may not be clear yet himself!). Maybe he's learned about global warming and doesn't want to waste electricity but, ever since he saw a scary costume at Halloween, he is now afraid of a living room zombie -- you won't know until you Active Listen! 

Why are you okay if adults interrupt me, but not ok if I do that?

My 11 year old daughter asked me this just a few days ago.

I was speaking to her Mandarin tutor when Claudia stopped packing her bag and came over to tell me something; I put up my hand. She was annoyed and challenged me while waiting for the elevator.

I might have chosen to defend myself, "Well, Claudia, I've been really mindful of this and I'm trying my best -- sorry!" 

Instead, I gave her some AL love using background facts I knew.

                   Ironically, I had posted this over the summer on my FB page; I guess I still have a ways to go.

                   Ironically, I had posted this over the summer on my FB page; I guess I still have a ways to go.

Me: "This has been really bothering you. It's not the first time you've mentioned it to me, and you're frustrated because I haven't really changed!"

Claudia: "Yes, I can never talk to you when I want to and you let adults jump in whenever!"

Me: "This has happened so many times and it seems really unfair to you!"

Claudia: "Yeah, I hate you!"

Me: "You are so mad at me! It's not right that I have a double standard."

Claudia: "What's a double standard?"

I did answer this: "That's when I hold some people to one set of rules and others to another set."

Claudia: "Yes, that's not right. I hate that."

Me: "You are really annoyed when I act that way. It doesn't feel good at all when I won't listen to you but DO listen to any adult that wants to talk to me."

Claudia: "Yes." 

In the ensuing silence, I sensed that she felt heard and understood. I was glad I could do that for her.

As I drove away, I moved in with an apology and explanation.

Me: "I am really sorry, Claudia. I was aware of this problem before but I guess I haven't made much progress on it."

Claudia: "It's ok, Mom."

I continued: "But it's really important for me to treat everyone the same. I needed to clear up some scheduling with the teacher and her next student was waiting so I couldn't listen to you right then. I think I have improved with people I know -- like Grandma and Daddy -- and I will point out to them, 'Wait, please, Claudia was speaking to me.' but I will try harder to do that with all other adults too."

"Ok." Claudia was satisfied.

And so was I.

What this girl has to say has always been important!

What this girl has to say has always been important!

Who do you love more – me or the baby?

This is a doozy, right? If you say, "Neither -- I love you both the same!" will that do the trick?

Probably not. Put yourself in his shoes for a short sec:

You know that story about the man who brings home a second wife? He tells his first wife that he loves her so much he wanted another. He expects her to love the second wife as much as he does, to take care of her, and show her the ropes. We often tell that story to help parents understand how their older child might feel about the new baby. . . Why should they share our excitement over these trespassers? Why shouldn’t they be heartbroken? Why shouldn’t they want to send them back or flush them down the toilet? It doesn't betray your love for your youngest to understand why your oldest might feel devastated and furious. 

-- Dr. Laura Markham, post on sibling rivalry on Aha

So with the image of that dewy second wife (or buff second husband) in your mind, drum up oodles of empathy for your child: 

Parent: "It's really hard not to be the only child anymore and you're worried that I love the baby more than you."

Child: "Yeah, give her away!"

Parent: "Sometimes you wish it could go back to how it was when Mommy and Daddy only had you!"

Child: "You never play with me! You don't love me, you only love her!"

Parent: "It’s so hard to have a new sister, to have to share Mommy and Daddy. You're sad that the baby takes so much of my attention!"

And so on until the big brother feels fully accepted for just how hard he is taking it and can now hear your answer

Parent: "I want you to know that I love you so much, for the amazing and precious boy that you are and that will never change, no matter who else I love too. There is a special place in my heart that only you can fill, and that place will never change! I love being with you, and I am going to make extra effort to have more special time where it's just the two of us."

Parenting is something else, isn't it? Questions that don't have to be answered . . . hmmm. . .

But when we think about it, it makes sense. Sometimes, our children speak in code, just like we do.

I've been known to throw out the rhetorical question, "And do you expect me to pick up your socks?" If my husband answers "No" I am far from feeling better. If he notes, "You're really frustrated and annoyed that I can never seem to break this bad habit of mine!" I feel a whole lot closer to that man of mine.

This is the kind of warm connection we can build if we widen the lense of our perception to take in what our children are not just asking, but really telling us.

Credits: Speech bubbles (