“Why?”: The Question That Causes So Much Trouble

“I asked him ‘why?’ and he just shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I don’t know.’” I have heard a form of this statement from countless parents lamenting the fact that they can’t get a straight answer to their “Why?” question. “Why didn’t you turn in your homework?” “Why did you leave your stuff on the floor?” “Why did you take that from your little sister?” The list goes on, and I have found myself asking them as well, both to clients and my own children. So I am familiar with the blank stare or shrugged shoulders that come after the question. Let’s look at why this might be happening and what a parent can do differently.

There are some developmental realities that limit a child’s ability to answer the “why” questions they often hear. Executive skills, including metacognition, develop throughout childhood, but are not finished developing until your early-20’s. Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. To recognize what it is you are thinking about and reflect on its motivation, purpose, consequences, and other elements. Metacognition is a very important skill that is needed to answer many of our “why” questions, but one that is not ready to be used at a young age.

There is also a higher level of egocentrism until age 7. This is developmentally appropriate, and means that your child will have a harder time understanding something from other perspectives. Some “why” questions include the need to understand another point of view, and if this skill has not been achieved your child will struggle to recognize those other perspectives. Children are also inherently impulsive. Instead of thinking about how their actions will make a sibling feel or where they were asked to put their backpack yesterday, they simply make a choice based on the present situation and related thoughts and feelings. Impulsivity, plus limited self-reflection and perspective taking, means they will act in a way that will leave you wondering “why,” but they likely didn’t have the forethought and awareness to answer such a question about their motivation. Finally, sometimes we ask “why” about something that happened hours ago, and for a young child, it’s simply too long ago to remember all the details and motivations.

This is not to say that children can’t be held responsible when they do something to hurt others or break family rules, but some of the arguments that stem from a child not being able to answer “why” questions can be avoided. Here are some ideas for how to respond when you find yourself asking “why” and there doesn’t seem to be an answer:

Take a breath (or 5 or 10) and give them time to think about the situation.

Accept you might not get an answer to the “why” question and focus on other questions that can help develop metacognition:

    • What was the desired outcome of their actions?
    • What was the actual outcome and were they happy with it?
    • What could they do next time in that situation?
    • Did they need any help from a parent, teacher, or someone else?

Consider whether your tone and phrasing are inviting dialogue or instilling blame, and if you find more of the latter, be willing to try again.

Narrate what happened and what might have been possible motivations, thoughts, or feelings (particularly with very young kids). Point out that perhaps they wanted to play with the Legos you got out for them, but then they changed their mind or found something else more interesting.

Recognize other factors that went into their decision or action (Tired, Hungry, Upset about something, Reacting to a parents’ emotion response led to a change in their emotions or decisions…)

Coming Soon:

I’ll be starting a group that will focus on Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation for teens. The group will include teaching and rehearsing specific skills to increase distress tolerance, coping with anxiety and anger, and making values-based choices. There will be a parent education and support element to the program as well. Look for more information soon on our website and in the next newsletter.


Posted in Articles, Executive Function, Parenting.