Why not to ask why

“Why?” questions are uppermost in the minds of most parents when they first come out to the group:

  • “Why does he lie?”
  • “Why does she hang around with those kids?”
  • “Why does he do drugs?”
  • “Why does she steal?”

But we don’t have to know why a problem exists to solve it.


Psychology and psychiatry have trained us to go back for answers and reasons for our current unhappiness or unwanted behaviour: back to our youth, back to our childhood, back to where “the problem” originated.

With this approach, we don’t go back for two reasons:

a) We can’t change the past, no matter how often we return to it.

b) What happened then doesn’t limit what we’re capable of now.

If it didn’t feel good the first time through, why do you think reliving it will feel better?

“Why?” can also imply, “If the reason is good enough, I’ll accept or tolerate the behaviour or situation.” And the answer is often a way of sidestepping responsibility, excusing behaviour and laying the blame elsewhere, on some-thing or someone we can do nothing about.

We apply this to ourselves:

  • “I drink to wind down after a long day, because I have a very stressful job.”
  • “I overspend to feel better when my partner is getting on my nerves.”

And we extend this to our teens:

  • “He gets in trouble because he’s hanging out with a bad crowd.”
  • “She kicks holes in the walls because she has unresolved anger issues.”
  • “He steals because he has a drug problem.”

A simple guideline:

  • If you’re looking back, you’re looking for a reason.
  • If you’re looking forward, you’re looking for a solution.

A young woman related the following concern:

“I went into Tim Horton’s a couple of days ago to buy a sandwich. They didn’t have any, but the lady behind the counter said I could get cookies, donuts or muffins instead. I felt rushed and blurted out, ‘Okay. I’ll take six of those cookies and a chocolate muffin.’ But then, before I’d even gotten out the door, I was regretting my decision, and I ended up going across the street to buy a sandwich. I didn’t want the cookies or the muffin. I wanted a sandwich. So why did I say yes?! I do this all the time, jump at the first idea and go with it, and I don’t understand why I do that.”

If we’d started looking for answers to her “Why?” we’d probably still be there. Even if she did gain some insight, that path doesn’t lead to a solution.

So instead I asked, “If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”

She thought for a moment, and said, “I’d step out of line and say, ‘I need a minute to decide what I want.’ Then I’d either go to the back of the line or I’d go somewhere else. But I’d give myself time to think about what I wanted.”

Now she had a solution—and a plan for next time.

She’d been struggling with this behaviour for a while, always looking for “Why?” but never getting a satis­factory answer, and never moving past that to “What could I do differently next time?” So she remained “stuck” with that behaviour.

A few questions you can ask in response to the “Why?” question:

  • If you had an answer, how would that change things?
  • If you knew why, what would you do with that information?
  • How would having an answer help you or your teen?

Then start looking at solutions instead!

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