Stop Meltdowns! Ask “What?” Not “Why?”

stop meltdowns

When our daughter was in Kindergarten, we signed her up for Daisy Scouts, the pre-brownie first step on the path to becoming a Girl Scout. After school one day a week, her group did all kinds of fun, crafty things that involved frosting, glitter and sports — everything our girl loved!

And yet, after the first few weeks, she started melting down when it was time to go to the meetings. She would dig in and refuse to go, or she would throw herself on the floor in full-on temper-tantrum mode. My husband and I were stunned. What happened? Why didn’t she want to go anymore?

Collecting Information

We began investigating in earnest. We talked to the troop leader and the parents of other kids in the group.  When we asked ‘Why?’ she told us she didn’t like it & just didn’t want to go. We were stumped.  We even did research online. We were steadfast that our second child not be a quitter. This defiance could not be tolerated!

Not surprisingly, everything we tried failed. After numerous meltdowns, we finally agreed to let her quit. That night, as we were sharing our tale of Daisy-woe with my in-laws, my fabulous mother-in-law asked, simply: ‘What does my granddaughter say is going on?’ Huh?  Total light bulb moment. It hadn’t occurred to us to ask our daughter what was behind this dramatic change of heart. 

So we asked.

And we found out that she didn’t want to go because the Daisy Scout badges on her sash hadn’t been sewn on, and she was very self-conscious about how her sash looked compared to the other girls. Even at 5 years old, it was important to our future supermodel to look good!

I saved my mommy guilt for later (what kind of Mom forgets to finish the sash?!), patch-magick’d those badges on that sash, and we were back in Daisy-business in no time.

Go Directly to the Source

But my husband and I were reeling from our ignorance. We marveled at how crazy it was that in all that research, it never occurred to us to ask our daughter what was going on for her!  We’d asked ‘why’ but not ‘what.’  And this simple tweak made a major meltdown difference.

I take some solace in knowing we aren’t the only ones who miss ‘what.’ In my work with clients, I often hear some version of this:   

  • ‘What can I do to help her keep it together after school?’
  • ‘I can’t imagine what he was thinking when he decided to skip practice!’
  • ‘I don’t understand why she doesn’t want to join a club at school!’
  • ‘What could possibly have caused him to fall apart right then?’

All of these parents are smart, capable, confident and successful individuals. And yet, when I ask ‘What does your son say is going on?’ or ‘What does your daughter think about that?’ more often than not, I hear stunned silence.

Because somehow, in our journey to finding solutions, we forget that our kids may actually have the answers, already. More often than not, they’re waiting for us to ask for their input.

Tips for Asking Your Child:

Once you’ve decided to ask your child’s input, you might want to take a moment to think about  HOW you’re approaching the situation. Here are a few tips to improve your chances of getting a helpful response:

  • Ask ‘What’ instead of ‘Why’‘Why’ can put kids on the defensive – they often do not know why they did or didn’t do something, but they can tell you what was going on.
    • What was going on for you when….?
    • What did you want to have happen…?
    • What’s making you want to/not want to….?
  • Give Space – Introduce the topic and be willing to wait for a response. Sometimes our kids need to process information before they can understand or express how they really feel. Don’t be surprised if your daughter comes to breakfast the morning after a conversation armed with an answer.
  • Remember to Ask! This is the critical piece. I know it sounds simplistic, but it truly makes a world of difference. Write ‘Ask’ on a post-it note and put it on the kitchen fridge, or come up with your own creative way to remember to consult the real expert: your child.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t work all the time.  Our complex kids often don’t know how to name the things they feel, or have the experience to identify specifically what they need.   But by asking what’s going on for them, or what they want to have happen, you may gain unique insight into how your son’s mind operates, and what your daughter needs.

And if you’re still not sure if this will work for your child, just ask the expert.

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