What’s Wrong with “Wh” Questions? 5 Things and The 5-Word Fix


Your child is falling apart. Another volcanic meltdown, drowning in a tsunami of tears, siren-like screams. If you knew what specifically was wrong, you’d know what specifically could help. So you resort to the strategy that helps you the most in adult life:  specific questions.

what-why-how2What are you upset about?
What happened?
When did this happen?
Where were you?
Why are you so upset?
How did this happen?

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Wh-wh-wh …

It truly is unfair that the style of inquiry that helps us function in the adult world incapacitates us when trying to help a young child.  Specific questions can even prolong and impede the process, while emotions spiral further out of control like a tornado on the plains.   Why? (oops!)

In 20 years of being a child psychologist, and the years of training before, I learned the cardinal lesson: “Wh” questions shut a child up faster then you can say ice cream sandwich.

 “Wh” questions can be unhelpful, even anti-helpful, because they:
    1. Shut down a child’s own narration and conception of the problem
    2. Block a child’s sharing of the salient details to him
    3. Pigeonhole a child’s thinking into your categories of thought
    4. Build a child’s frustration with us adults
    5. Make a child more upset from the communication gap

May I suggest an alternative ~ my 5-word Fix: “Tell me all about it.” It may sound similar to asking …  but this approach to inquiry is completely different. How so?

Consider the last time your computer displayed a cryptic, terrifying error message before going blank, toying with your life. In consultation with the  IT person, it may be very hard for you to explain the problem.  The IT person might ask you specific “wh” questions, such as: What did the error message say?  What were you doing right before this happened? What gobbledygook thingy is your thingamajig?

But you’re upset and you don’t have computer language. It may be doggone difficult to answer those “wh” questions. You might even grow more frustrated in this process. You might wish the IT person would simply say, “Tell me all about it.”  At that point, you could begin with the language you have to describe the problem at the level you are capable of.

When a child hears “Tell me all about it,”  it feels like “Just give it to me, however it’s going through your head right now, with whatever words you got … and I will just listen.”

“Tell me all about it” also opens up your child to tell you a detail you’d NEVER have asked for.  Because you couldn’t have thought of that.  Because you’re weren’t there … and you’re an adult.

Relying on “wh” questions in a meltdown is like trying to find a specific needle in your child’s haystack.  It’s like asking, repeatedly:   Is this the needle? Is this the needle?  Is THIS the needle? You would get infinitely farther, infinitely faster by just saying “Tell me about this haystack you got here.”

Naturally, you have to ask “wh” questions at some point. Probably several, to get the clarity you need. But starting out with nine “wh” questions will create more problems than progress.  “Tell me all about it” may be the most productive start.

You can add “I’m so sorry you’re so upset.”  When you’re lost, interject, “Help me understand; tell me some more about this, honey.” (Hint:  forget about solving this problem right now; her brain needs empathy too cool the limbic system down.) 

“Wh” questions are like putting your hand on a specific door knob and asking, “Is it this door?” Saying, “Tell me all about it” opens doors you didn’t even know were there.  Try it and you will see.