Your Child Just Asked a Question you Can't Answer

Author: one tough job

The time comes for every parent– that moment when your child asks you a question that you are not sure how to answer. Maybe it caught you off-guard, was terrible timing, or is just a real head-scratcher. Here are our recommendations for a few ways to handle these questions.

Redirect for better timing

Kids sometimes ask the right question at the wrong time. Even if it is a pertinent question, you may not have room to explore it at that moment. Perhaps your child asks about plane crashes at the airport or decides they have a question about sex in the middle of the grocery store. In these cases, have a gentle redirection up your sleeve. Something like: “I’m glad you asked, let’s talk about it when we get to the car” works well.

Children ask questions to learn about the world around them.

Teach politeness, not shame

It can feel mortifying when your child asks a question you weren’t ready for in a public space. However, remember not to shame your child nor the person(s) involved in their question. Children ask questions to learn about the world around them. While they often word them in ways that make us as adults and parents cringe, we don’t want to inadvertently teach them shame about topics just because they brought it up in a clumsy way.

For example, if your child points to someone in a wheelchair and says, “Why are they in a wheelchair?” you can teach politeness and appropriate behavior rather than shame. In this scenario, you may explain, “We don’t point at other people” instead of “Don’t say that! Let’s go.” This shows compassion to everyone in the situation.

Give them a simple answer for now

Sometimes in the panic to be the best parent possible, you feel a lot of pressure to answer the question immediately. Rather than elaborate on a topic you are unprepared to explain, give a simple answer. This strategy can be applied either when it is better explained outside of the public setting, or when you need to understand the topic more comprehensively.

In the scenario where your child points at a person in a wheelchair, you may give a brief answer and then open the discussion up for questions later. You can explain: “Some people have different abilities and may need things like a wheelchair to get around. If you have other questions, let’s discuss more in the car or at home.”

Brief answers or reminders about appropriate behavior with a mention of continuing the conversation later teaches and shows your child respect. They will understand that you are willing to answer their question more fully in a different setting, or after exploring the topic more on your own.

Defer to a co-parent or another support

If it applies to your family, a time-honored strategy is to tell your child that you will get back to them after speaking to their other parent, family member, or friend. Your children will appreciate you being a united front even if it takes longer for them to get answers. This approach works if you need more time to form an answer, you need some help forming an answer, or you truly want to make sure you and your child’s other parent or family member present similar thoughts and opinions on a certain topic. Make sure you do speak to their parent or a trusted friend or family member before you come back with answers. You want your child to trust you and not feel ignored.

Turn the question back to them

Children sometimes ask questions when trying to express concerns or worries. In these cases, gently inviting your child to share their feelings, or reason their own answer, can be beneficial. For example, if your child asks if your family is going to lose the house they live in, rather than simply saying “no,” or “that’s silly to ask,” you can tell your child: “It sounds like you are concerned about where we live. Do I understand correctly?” Your child may tell you a fear related to moving, or homelessness, or perhaps a different fear that escalated. Sometimes, the best way to handle a hard question is to understand where it came from in your child’s heart and mind.

Other times, your child is working on understanding why people act in certain ways or grasping social cues. Asking some leading questions such as “Why do you think they felt that way?” or “Do you think they looked sad or angry?” can be helpful if they seem confused. Your child may not realize how a friend or family member was feeling or what their reactions meant. These confusing emotions can lead them to ask questions.

Asking questions to learn about the world is normal behavior for children as they develop. It is not your job to answer every question perfectly or know all the answers. This would be nearly impossible! However, these tips are a good start. Take a deep breath the next time and try using one of these recommendations to move forward. Your children will only trust you more if you are honest with them.

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