Getting Beyond “Why?”

As parents, we know that teenage girls are basically swimming in a hormonal sea.

If you’re lucky, your teenage daughter’s rationality comes and goes evenly like the tide. But other times, she may hit like a Tsunami that we never saw it coming. In the blink of an eye, our world gets turned upside down and we’re left with the burning question “what just happened?”

For example, have you ever asked your daughter a simple question, like, “why didn’t you get your homework done?” only to have her fly off the handle leaving you stunned? Well, before we blame it all on her hormones, let’s also consider that it may also have been about how the question was posed to her.

That innocent and simple sounding, “why?” can often trigger strong feelings around being judged and criticized.

As a teenager, I personally remember feeling defensive because I perceived that my mother was judging me. One morning in 9th grade, I was looking in the full-length mirror in the hallway at the stylin’ outfit I was going to wear to school. I loved the new shirt I had on and really liked how it went with my jeans. I was feeling good!

Then my mother walked by:

Mom: “Why can’t you ever tuck in your shirt? You have a nice figure, but you always wear such big, baggy clothes that make you look so dumpy that no one would ever know it.”
Me: “Why do you even care?! Why do you have to control me all the time? Why can’t you ever just leave me alone?”
Mom: “Why do you have to be so dramatic?”

There are so many things wrong with that interaction on so many levels, but that little, innocent-sounding “Why” word may actually be the most critical and damaging part of the whole conversation.

Common parental “Why” examples include:

  • Why are you late?
  • Why are you wearing that?
  • Why didn’t you get your homework done?
  • Why are you so upset?
  • Why can’t you just listen?
So what’s so wrong about “Why?”

It has everything to do with physiology: “Why” makes us feel threatened. The crazy thing is, our brain doesn’t distinguish between a social threat and a physical threat. So, if I’m 15 years old, my brain perceives both my mother criticizing me and a possible attack from a rabid dog in the exact same way. Physiologically, in the face of any kind of threat, we all are programmed to fight, flee, freeze or appease—not exactly the foundation of great conversations.

When we’re threatened, we defend ourselves.

In the case of your daughter, she might start screaming at you, or run to her room and slam the door. She may stand there saying nothing, but staring at you blankly (or with vehemence, fear, shock, etc.) Or, she might say, “Whatever. Fine.” However it manifests, she’ll be justifying her thinking and actions and disengaging from you because she feels attacked and threatened.

Connecting with her requires a shift in your thinking to ask the right kinds of questions, and then really listen to learn from her rather than stating or defending your viewpoint. At the most basic level of the human condition, we all want to feel heard and understood. When we do, we open up. When we don’t, we withdraw.

The Reporter Questions

So, if we truly want to connect with our sometimes unpredictable and often hormonal daughter, we have to avoid the “Why’s?” and instead ask the reporter questions: the who, what, where, when, and how.

For example:

  • Who told you they would pick you up after school?
  • What happened after that?
  • Where were you when he called?
  • When did you first know this?
  • How did you end up getting from her house to the movies?

So, if my mother and I had a do-over, how could we have done things differently? Maybe it would go something like this:

Mom: “I notice that you often wear baggy clothes to school these days. What is it about baggy clothes that you like?”
Me: “I’m more comfortable in baggy clothes. I hate the feeling of tight clothes and especially anything tight around my waist. It makes me feel fat and self-conscious and then I get anxious about eating and food.”
Mom: “I get it. I’ve been there too.”

In a perfect world, my mother and I would have had a productive difficult conversation rather than a distancing blow up. If she had expressed genuine curiosity versus what I perceived as judgment and criticism through her “Why’s”, I would have felt safe enough to be completely honest and vulnerable. And the icing on the cake would have been to hear from her “I know how you feel.”

As a mother of a teenage daughter, you will get countless chances to practice trying to connect with her. Beyond asking “Why?”, what questions will you ask to gain deeper appreciation and understanding of her? How would you like to have been asked questions by your own mother? Can you imagine practicing something different with your own daughter?
Leave a comment and let us know what questions you use to connect with your teenage daughter.

Allison O’Brien, born and raised in Kingston, Rhode Island, now lives in Lafayette, Colorado with her two children, a 14 year-old daughter and a nine year-old son. She is a Consultant and Facilitator with Listening Impact, a communication-consulting firm based in Boulder, CO.  She is passionate about helping others to cultivate meaningful connection through the power of Listening.

  1. Tracy

    I love communication skills and the most current word I’m being taught to use to help women find their “why” is why. A series of why’s as a matter of fact. It is fascinating to hear a different spin on the word. Thanks for a well written , clear article on communication. I’ll add this knowledge to my communication tool bag.

  2. Shannon

    Thanks for these great thoughts about questioning our kids. As a mother of a younger girl, it’s great to keep these in mind. I think many of us do hear those “why” questions as an attack or a judgement. Even if my daughter isn’t going to fight back or defend herself at the age of 7, the questions I ask – and the way I ask them – might be setting up a dynamic in our relationship in which she feels constantly critiqued. The reporter questions that you encourage could set up a dynamic in which we start to know and understand each other better. I’m definitely going to keep these in mind.

    • Dorothy Ponton


      Thanks for sharing how you can use this approach well before the teen years.

  3. Cathy Trebino

    The article by Allison O’Brien hit the nail on the head. Flashbacks of wishing situations over simple things had not gone so poorly with my parents as a teenager. Now I don’t have to ask myself “why”.

    • Dorothy Ponton

      OMG, Yes! This article helped me understand where conversations with my parents went off the rails.


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