While there are no absolutes, some questions are better, or more effective, than others. Are you asking your kids the right questions?
Let's get one thing out of the way first. How we react to a question is entirely about us; however, when we're the ones doing the asking, and we want to maintain a respectful and loving relationship, we'd do well to examine the intention behind the question.
Make it personal for a moment, with you on the receiving end. How many times has someone asked a question that caused you to feel defensive or angry? And how many times has the person said s/he was just asking a simple question? The words may be simple, but the inference or motivation is not.
The big culprit - WHY
As someone who used to take everything personally, the 'why' question was a big trigger for me. The perfectionist in me heard that word and went to self-doubt and judgment. Because I was not a fighter, my M.O. was to retreat and withdraw. On the surface it was anger at the other person, but underneath I was my own judge and jury, coming down hard on myself.
Beware the 'why'. I have found that beginning a question with 'why' can be like pointing your finger at your child, waggling that finger in her face. It can be inherently critical, trying to make a point and to be right:
"Why didn't you start that assignment sooner?" "Why are you spending time with him?"
'Why' is an instigator. 'Why' is a judge. 'Why' is the creator of angry and defensive kids, who can become rebellious or self-critical. (Rebellion and self-judgment happen anyway. Who wants more of that?)
Curiosity and honesty: antidotes to 'why'
The right question, or the better question, shows curiosity. Become curious. Share what you see and engage in creating solutions.
"I see that you're overwhelmed with so much work and so little time. What would help you get started?" Or "How can I be of help? A hug, to listen, to brainstorm, or to leave you alone? Let me know."
Be honest (while being respectful). "Sweetheart, you know that we can feel very protective of you. That's how parents sometimes are. We have some concerns about this new boy in your life. Can we talk about it? And we promise to listen!"
Do you ask interesting or interested questions?
What's the difference? An interesting question is about your agenda. An interested question is about the person in front of you.
"Did you hear about...?" is very different from "What do you think about...?" The first sounds like gossip that caught your attention. The second says you want to know the other person's perspective.
"You must have been upset when..." is different from "How did you feel when...?" Filling in the feeling says you're making an assumption. That's more about you. The second question says you really want to understand.
Say less, listen more.
In the end, it boils down to becoming a better listener, to leaving openings for your child to examine her feelings and, if you're lucky, to share them.
It takes time and practice to develop these skills, and no one gets it right all the time. Better would be great, though, wouldn't it?
Start to become an observer of yourself. Take notes about difficult interactions with your kids (and with everyone). Look for patterns and play with writing down how you could have asked a question differently. This process can help you become more aware when you just did, or are about to, go south with your questions. Little by little, asking the right questions will become second nature.
Fern Weis is a certified life coach who learned that caring and good intentions are not enough in parenting. In fact, they are often the problem! Fern supports parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations, including addiction recovery. She helps parents release guilt, end enabling and confidently prepare their children to thrive through life's challenges. Her articles are featured in Thrive Global, Medium, Motherly, The Teen Mentor, and Bergen County Moms.
Learn more about coaching and classes at www.fernweis.com. And then download your free guide, "Five Powerful Steps to Get Your Teen to Talk." For information on Family Recovery programs, visit www.familyrecoverypartners.com.