To Help Kids Process Emotions, Ask, “How Was That?”

May 22, 2012 at 6:48 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

I always appreciate it when my kids tell me things that happened in their lives. I try to respond in a way that keeps the conversation going; keeps us talking. I also like getting to know them a little deeper, and sometimes I’m at a loss as to what to say that doesn’t impart my judgment onto their unique situation. I want to ask what they think (more than I want to tell them what I think).

So I ask, “How was that for you?”

It’s different than conveying my own reaction, offering my own advice, or telling them what I think. “Oh, that wasn’t very nice of your friend! He shouldn’t have said that. You should tell him to…”

Instead, there is much more value in focusing the conversation on a child’s own reaction to what happened. It helps them process their emotions without any external influence. No judgment of right/ wrong, good/ bad, should have/ shouldn’t have…We don’t decide how they should feel, they do.

For example…(and these are examples of conversations between my kids and me; my instinctual response versus what I said instead that elicited some thoughtful decisions):

JJ: Mom when I was at playing at the park some kids wouldn’t let me play in their game.

My instinctual response: Oh no! That’s not right. You should…


Me: Oh really? How was that for you?

JJ: Not good! Because I really wanted to play.

Me: You were left out.

JJ: Yeah, and that wasn’t nice!

Me: You felt hurt?

JJ: Yeah! I would never do that to someone who wanted to play!

Or this example of an enjoyable experience:

Elia: A girl in my class didn’t understand the work today, so I helped her until she got it.

My instinctual response: That was so nice of you! I’m glad you did that for her.


Me: Yeah? How was that?

Elia: Fine. She just had a hard time with some of the examples. So I walked around to her desk and helped her.

Me: What did she say?

Elia: She said ‘Elia how do you do this?’ So I showed her.

Me: And how did it go?

Elia: Good. I think she liked working with someone. And I liked helping her.

Say fewer words, give fewer judgments, ask open-ended questions, help kids find their own feelings about their experiences. Rather than tell, ask. It will help them develop emotional awareness and a strong inner compass when it comes to behavior–even when no one is there to evaluate and give feedback.


  1. thesinglecrunch said,

    Great insight, thank you for sharing! With my 8yo I feel like I color her opinion so much and I’ve been trying to do that less. I would love to know her opinion without her first knowing mine. Thanks.

  2. Allison said,

    I completely agree. We have begun doing this with our 2.5 year old whenever she hurts herself. She rolled off the couch yesterday and bonked her head. Instead of saying “Aww you hit your head” I simply asked her “What happened?” and she told me in great detail how she was on the edge of the couch and rolled off and hit her head on the ground. She gets an emotional release from describing a painful event and can easily express if the incident is a big deal or not. If she’s crying I know it is because she is shook up, not because she thinks I expect her to be. By saying “What happened?” she begins with the details that are relevant to her rather than managing my expectations and observations.

    • stepmonsterxoxo said,

      The post and comments themselves are very insightful!! I love it. Thanks so much for posting this.

      I would like to add for Allison, though, that narrating what happened isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’re not offering an opinion, you’re saying what happened.

      For example:
      – “Aww you hit your head, that’s gotta hurt!” That’s offering your opinion.
      – “You hit your head. What happened?” That’s offering a chance to hear her story and helping her to release her emotions.

      It’s a part of RIE philosophy that I’ve been learning a lot about. You’re giving them words to process what happened to them and a chance to think how they felt about what happened to them.

      It’s a lot like when Janet Lansbury talks about when two infants begin fighting. If it doesn’t get resolved quickly, she will narrate what they’re doing instead of intervening or offering her opinions. Every time she says what they did, the infants pause and think about the next step. It helps them to process what they want to do next. It also gives them pause to consider the feelings running through them, helps them to learn how to resolve things in these conflicts.

      Afterwards, using this technique here, I’d add and ask, “How do you feel? How did that go for you?”

      At least that’s what I took away from it. 🙂

  3. Megan at Montessori Moments said,

    I’m posting a link to this on my school’s website 🙂 Excellent advice and something I do often but not always. Working on it!

  4. Me said,

    I agree with the basic idea. But it is tiring to see so many parenting ‘advice’ writers frame their well meaning suggestions in an instead-of framework. I see no problem with praising our children for something they did well. Children crave and need the approval of their parents; the world is quite full of stories of adults who are messed up because they didn’t have enough of that.

    So what’s wrong with letting your child know you are happy they helped out someone else, and THEN asking “how was that”? Nothing. You can do both, it doesn’t have to be one instead of the other.

    • Kelly said,

      I get what your’e saying and I think that’s a really common perception.

      Yes, children need something from their parents, but it is not praise, which lacks emotional depth. They need *unconditional love,* *acceptance without judgment*, and *encouragement,* as these are what creates secure parent-child relationships and fosters strong inner growth and self confidence.

      If we always praise children for something they did well, they’ll always be looking for that approval from someone, when really it’s much more valuable to teach them to find it within themselves.

  5. EmilyM said,

    It’s hard not to respond with advice or to give your own opinion. It is important for them to process those feelings on their own though. Great post!

  6. Jo said,

    Thank-you! I knew all this, but had slipped back into old habits!

  7. Birgitta Hamann Bella said,

    This even works with teenage boys….I tried it 🙂

  8. Hooked On said,

    This seems like a good guideline for people…”Say fewer words, give fewer judgments, ask open-ended questions, help PEOPLE find their own feelings about their experiences.”

  9. Teressa said,

    Do you have any examples that show how this might go if you’re concerned about how your child is reacting/ has reacted? If their behavior seems unkind? Do you sometimes choose to say nothing when you’d like to offer guidance?

    • Kelly said,

      It depends on the situation and what is going on. If you mean like a tantrum, when a child is highly emotional (upset angry, etc.), it’s probably not a good time to get them to talk about things. So yes, sometimes it OK to say nothing and let them express their feelings right then. (Making sure everyone is safe & no one is in danger of getting hurt.) You can always come back to the situation later, when everyone is calm, and go through this same kind of open-ended processing as described above in this post.

      Sometimes we do have to intervene to stop a hurtful situation, but don’t necessarily have to “deal with it” fully and completely on the spot. We can stop the hurting, keep everyone safe, validate feelings…and then revisit the issue after the strong emotions have passed. Later you can bring it up again, “Hey remember when ___ happened? How was that for you? You seemed very (insert feeling here).” And use those open-ended questions to help the child process emotions now that he/s he is calm & thinking more rationally.

      • Teressa said,

        I wasn’t thinking tantrums really. More like what if your child tells a story about a conflict they experienced and you see that they did or said something that bothers you (something hurtful e.g.). I guess my question is how does feedback fit into this? I like how your examples show not-evaluating, not-giving advice etc and I think that’s very valuable and should make up the majority of our interactions, but when is it appropriate to share our own understanding of situations? The examples given in the article are both scenarios where I wouldn’t be tempted to “correct” the child’s behavior, so I’m wondering about examples that show kids being less delightful.

        • Kelly said,

          Oh, I see! That has happened to us too, before…and I still find it helpful to process the feelings behind the interactions, maybe from both sides of the scenario using “I wonder” statements…kind of like you’re processing the events and thinking out loud right along with your child.

          So you could say something like, “I wonder how that made him/ her feel?” Or, after the story has been relayed, “So what I’m hearing is ___ happened, and you felt ___. Then you did ___. I wonder how that made him feel?”

          “I wonder if things could have gone differently?”
          “Were there any other options?”
          “What could have helped things go better?”
          “I wonder if you or the child had made a different choice, how it would have worked out?”

          The idea is to help guide the thinking process and help the child process some of their own actions/ emotions as well as the other party’s actions/ emotions, realizing that they’re all connected. And if you’re not getting anywhere or just getting responses of “I don’t know,” or “Nothing,” it’s OK to supplement some of your guesses. Like,

          “Hm I have a feeling he might have been hurt when you said/ did ___.” “It sounded like that may have made him feel bad. Maybe he started taking his anger out on you?”
          “Sometimes people hurt others when they themselves feel hurt. I wonder if both you and he were feeling hurt for different reasons?”

          Usually, that’s enough to trigger some kind of realization, even a small one, about what could go differently next time. Then the next step is the child actually making a different choice when a similar situation comes up again..and that just takes lots of practice & growing! 🙂

          • Teressa said,

            Thanks! Just what I was looking for.

  10. Louise said,

    Thank you for that gift of a reminder to open up, pause and shift gears when we engage with our children! I said your phrase aloud so I would remember it…”How was that for you?”…

  11. MaMammalia said,

    So succinctly put: “Rather than tell, ask.” That seems to sum it up pretty well! Thanks for sharing your insights and valuable techniques!

    One concern I had while reading some of the comments was the “What happened?” response. In the situations you describe, it makes sense and I would do the same thing. This may be slightly off topic, but it made me think of other situations. For example, occasionally a child will start crying after a little stumble without physical injury. The tears may only partially be about the hurt head. Sometimes nothing really “happened”, she just needs to unload some bottled up feelings. In those situations, a simple “What happened?” may send the message “you are only allowed to cry when something bad just happened.” It also sets up the expectation for the child to verbalize those feelings. Those feelings may be too complex for them to put into words, even later on when they are calm. Bottom line: sometimes, if open-ended questions don’t feel right, it’s also good to just be quiet and listen 🙂

    • Kelly said,

      Excellent point…couldn’t agree more! Thanks, MaMammalia.

  12. » Sharing Sunday Positive Parenting Connection said,

    […] From Parenting from Scratch To Help Kids Process Emotions, Ask, “How Was That?”  […]

  13. Karelys Davis said,

    So I started reading about this type of positive/peaceful parenting and the like just because I was nervous I wouldn’t know how to parent my child (due in sept) very well and I’d just let my frustrations pile on him.

    But I find that this is such a no nonsense approach to relationships in general. I hate arguments and have been feeling lost because my husband and I seem to be unsuccessful at communicating well. I started using these principles (that are meant to understand the child, making him feel accepted and loved) to open bridges of communication with him and inviting him to cross them. Things do not seem as overwhelming when communication is shut down between us. I really like this!

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Karelys, kudos to you for reading about parenting approaches before your child is even born! You sound like a very dedicated mama already. 🙂 It’s interesting that you mention communication with your husband because I often think that positive parenting tools shouldn’t be restricted to parenting situations…the principles behind them (communication, empathy, acceptance, etc.) are helpful for any kind of relationship. You might be interested in this post I wrote a few months ago on the 5 best “parenting” tools to use with your spouse:

      Also, I highly recommend Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. The communication tools in that book are SO helpful for ALL relationships. Definitely worth checking out. So glad you stopped by today and thanks for your comments!

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