“I Wonder” Statements – How To Get Better, More Meaningful Responses From Your Kids

Aug 19, 2021

I wonder how often you get frustrated when your child responds with one-word answers. (See what I did there?) Using “I wonder” statements with your children is one of the greatest techniques that play therapists use to interact with kids on their emotional level to bring out meaningful responses. In this episode, I explore the topics of questions vs. statements, “if you know enough to ask a question, then you can make a statement”. and finally, the importance of keeping kids in their hearts.
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Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. This is the Play Therapy Parenting Podcast where I give you insight, awareness, and enlightenment about your parenting and your relationship with your kids. Today we are talking about one of my favorite tools in the parenting toolbox, if you will. The ‘I wonder’ statement, and it is something that we as play therapists use all the time. It’s one of our foundational principles and ways that we interact with kids, and then we often train parents how to use it with their own kids. So why I find this so interesting is it just reminds me, and makes me even more aware of how, we’ve been conditioned that if we need information, we ask questions. And so as a result, we ask way too many questions to our kids. And I think that the ‘I wonder’ statement is the antidote for that. And it’s very interesting because once parents grasp this, once parents begin using ‘I wonder’ statements on a frequent basis with their kids, they are absolutely amazed about how much this works. I have parents consistently come back to me and say, “I cannot believe how well the ‘I wonder’ statements work when normally my child would get really upset, they normally would fight, they normally would throw a tantrum, they normally wouldn’t answer me, and then ‘I wonder’ statement is just this magic thing that makes everything okay.”

So in today’s episode, I want to talk through three big ideas around the ‘I wonder’ statement. So the first is questions versus statements. They create different processes for children, well for humans, but specifically kids. They create different processes and then they also create different outcomes. And so we’ll unpack that, and once you understand the different purposes that each serve and how it unfolds when you make a statement versus ask a question, I think it will be really clearly evident why it’s so important to use ‘I wonder’ statements. So we’ll look at that. Secondly, you typically almost always will already know the answer to the question that you ask your children. So we’ll talk through that. And if you have an ‘aha’ moment right now, that’s a really helpful thing because usually once you get that – “You know what I do, I almost always know the answer before I ask it” That will help you to use I wonder statements instead. And then finally, we’ll talk through the importance of keeping kids in their hearts. And if you’ve been listening to my podcasts for any length of time, if you’ve been following me with my newsletter, my videos, my articles, there’s lots of ways to keep in touch with me. But if you’ve listened to any of the content that I’ve put out over the last 16 or so years, you might have heard me talk about kids live in their hearts. And so we’ll unpack that a little bit together and we’ll talk about why it’s so important to allow them to remain there, because questions don’t let them stay there. So we’ll look at that together. The path to calm, confident and in control parenting starts now.

Okay, so when we’re talking about questions versus statements, it’s really important to differentiate, that they create very different outcomes and they invoke a very different process. And what I mean by that is questions require you to cognitively process what’s being asked of you. In other words, someone says, “where are we going later?” You have to think to answer the question. Someone says, “how are we going to fix that?” You use your brain to problem solve. It is a very cognitive process, an intellectual process, brain based process to respond to a question. In the adult world with rational, logical cognitive beings, that is fine and we can be asked questions all day long and it really doesn’t matter because we are already brain based individuals. In contrast, however, our children are not; kids are emotionally based. Meaning they live in their hearts. We have to remember that children are emotional and so when we ask them questions, it essentially is in conflict with who they are and where they remain throughout the day. They aren’t in their heads, they are not thinking cognitively, intellectually; they are emotionally processing the world. And so statements allow the child to remain in that emotional place.

So you’re essentially creating the dynamic of a child is in an emotional place, you ask a question. Again, we are conditioned that we have to ask questions to get information. So if we want to know why something’s happening, or what’s happening, or how something happened, we think that we have to ask questions of our children. But by doing so, they are forced to battle with themselves essentially for ‘I’m supposed to think through my answer and I really am feeling what’s going on right now.’ So it creates a different outcome, because if you use an ‘I wonder’ statement, for example, it allows the child to remain in that emotional place and you will get far more from them if you meet them in their emotions rather than asking them to jump into their heads. So it’s a very important distinction. And I think that once you start to see the magic of using statements rather than questions, you will begin to see the benefit of this.

And this is something that we talk a lot about in the Child Parent Relationship Training, which is part of the In Home Play Therapy program. And parents will often realize that as they begin to do this, they will actually work on making statements. But they make the statement sound like a question. And what I mean by that is (and this is actually kind of a 2.0 – I’m kind of giving you a bonus for free). But this is something that if you really start to work on this, if you start to think through, “I really want to make statements rather than ask questions,” you’re going to have to be careful of this. So this is kind of a cautionary tale if you will. We will make a statement, grammatically speaking. In other words, on paper it would have a period at the end. But the tone of our voice and the inflection at the end of the statement turns it into a question. Here’s an example. So the statement might be “you wanted to play with that toy.” Okay, that would have a period. It’s a statement and said like this “you wanted to play with that toy.” It’s a statement. But what will happen is, we’re so conditioned to expecting a response because we’ve asked a question, we tend to say or ask rather “you wanted to play with that toy” and that immediately gets the ‘yeah,’ or the head nod, or the affirmative response from our kids. And then we go, “oh, that sounded like a question and they responded as such.” Because when you go up at the end of your statement, it turns it into a question sound. So the caution, the challenge, is to make sure that when you make statements you go low at the end of them so that it sounds, in fact, like a statement. So that was some bonus for free. You got a 2.0 Lesson there. Okay.

Number two – You have to think through the fact that when we ask questions, we are often trying to get confirmation of what we already know. So the premise of we usually already know the answer to the question in the first place; there’s a principle in the training, when I do my private parent coaching, which is “if you know enough to ask a question, you know enough to make a statement.” And what I mean by that is we will often say “did that scare you?” when our child jumps, and their eyes get really big, and they grasp onto our leg when a noise or fireworks or thunder or whatever, you know startles them. We say “did that scare you?” We already knew they were scared, their nonverbals showed us, their body language showed us, their facial expression showed us. And we were even able to identify that they were in fact startled, or surprised, or scared. And so we had already answered our own question. But when we say something like that, “did that scare you?” And they go, ‘yeah,’ then that somehow makes us feel like we were right. But a more effective approach is “that startled you!” So there’s the ‘I already know enough to make a statement because I knew enough to ask the question.’

And so it’s helpful, and that actually brings us into reflecting feelings which is a whole other topic. Other podcasts, other articles, and other videos – so if you are not familiar with the skill of reflecting feelings, please look that up. You know, pause this, go and check out reflecting feelings and you will see that I just reflected the feeling there. But the ‘I wonder’ statement would also be effective there. So rather than saying, “did that scare you?” You could say, “ooh, I wonder if the lightning was loud and startled you.” So there’s the use of the ‘I wonder’ statement, that wasn’t so much a feeling reflection, even though a feeling reflection is very helpful in a moment like that. That would be the use of the ‘I wonder’ statement. But in either scenario, we’re not asking a question. Another example of where we might ask a question traditionally would be, you know, your children are out playing and they come running in and they have tears pouring down their face and you say “why are you crying?” Okay again, obviously we’re trying to seek information. But you can say, “I wonder what happened.” You could also couple that with a feeling reflection and say, “oh you’re upset, I wonder what happened.” So ‘you’re upset’ is the feeling reflection. “I wonder what happened” is the ‘I wonder’ statement. And look that those are two sentences strung together and we don’t have to say “why are you crying?” Because remember, they’re in an emotional place, they’re dealing with all of these feelings. And saying, “why are you crying?” pushes them up into their brain and that’s not where they are. So it’s really important to keep that in mind. If you know enough to ask a question, you know enough to make a statement. We are conditioned that we have to ask questions for information and it’s just not true. And the ‘I wonder’ statement gives you an alternative.

So then finally, point number three, the importance of keeping kids in their heads. And so I talk a lot about the difference between adults and children. Adults live in their heads. Kids live in their hearts. The distinction, and why it’s so significant, is that questions put them in their heads, like we’ve already talked about and it essentially creates a disconnect. So think of it as your head and your heart get into an internal battle and they are warring for your attention. So child gets hurt, falls off their bike, let’s say when they’re playing outside. They come in and you say, “why are you crying?” It forces them to talk, and think, and reason. And give this whole story, which is all a cognitive narration. But “oh, you’re upset. I wonder what happened.” “I fell off my bike and I’m really hurt.” That is exactly where they are emotionally. “I fell and I’m hurt.” That is enough for us to meet their need without forcing them into their heads. And here’s what will happen if we ask too many questions. If we force them into their head too often, we get non-answer answers. And what I mean by that is “why did you just throw that at your brother? I don’t know.” And see, that’s very frustrating for us as parents. And I can visualize all of you nodding your heads right now, emphatically like “yes! It’s so annoying when my kid says they don’t know why they did something.” Let me help you. Let me encourage you. It’s a truthful answer. They truly don’t know, because they weren’t thinking when they did it. They were feeling when they did it. And so to say “why did you do that? Why did you throw that? Why did you hit your brother? Why did you jump off the couch and bang your head on the floor? Why? Why? Why? We ask that a lot. And when they say, “I don’t know,” they really don’t. They didn’t think about anything. They have no knowledge of anything. They felt, they are impulsive. They had an emotion that drove the behavior and they acted on it.

So if you are frustrated with the one word answers such as “fine.” How was your day? “Fine.” How did practice go? “Okay.” That’s a very different response than if you said “I wonder what your favorite thing that happened at practice was today.” Emotional. “My favorite thing was that so-and-so tripped and did a barrel roll down the field. “Oh, that must have been funny.” Notice that the ‘I wonder’ statement lets them live where they already are. There is no battle, there’s no war, there’s no internal conflict going on. And you are much more likely to open the channel of communication by making statements rather than asking questions, especially if you reflect the feeling with it. But even if you just use and ‘I wonder’ statement, you are opening the channel for your child to communicate with you from their feelings and live in their heart, which is where they want to be. And as a kind of an added bonus, you’re actually helping them to build an emotional vocabulary when you let them live in their hearts. So by giving them the opportunity to share with you what’s going on internally, emotionally, they’re actually learning how to differentiate and identify and express their feelings. Which everyone in the world needs an emotional vocabulary, a healthy one, a mature one, a stable emotional vocabulary. That is a huge benefit to functioning well in the world.

As kind of a summary, I know that’s a lot to take in. But all back to the importance of the ‘I wonder’ statement. So first, questions and statements create two very different outcomes. We want to make sure that statements are used more often. Secondly, you most often will know what the child already is dealing with when you ask the questions, so you might as well just make a statement instead. And then finally, if you allow children to stay in their hearts, you get a lot more information from them, a lot more communication. You get a better understanding of what they’re thinking and feeling. And it builds an emotional vocabulary. So really important tool in your toolbox, really important premise of communication.

And I circle back to this almost every time – everything that we’re doing is to build the relationship that is strong, and steady, and healthy with our kids. And so ‘I wonder’ statements are just one more way to do that. Because imagine being five years old, having no rational thought, having no ability to think through anything, and being what you perceived to be interrogated by an adult in your life. “Why did you do that? Why would you think that’s a good idea? How in the world did you think that was going to go? Well, why? Well what? Well when?” They have no concept of any of those statements. You can’t reason with them. They don’t have abstract reasoning. You can’t rationalize with them. They’re not rational. So thinking in terms of the relationship and more importantly, preservation of the relationship, ‘I wonder’ statements give you that tool that lets you sit with them right where they are. And they don’t feel like they’re being questioned, or interrogated. They don’t feel like they have to war between their head and their heart. Really, really helpful. Really important.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to ask a question, and/or maybe you actually asked the question and then it dawns on you – an ‘I wonder’ statement might be helpful here. “If I know enough to ask a question, I know enough to make a statement.” You know, you’re going to hear that in your head when those moments come. So when that happens, even if you’ve already asked the question or if you’re ready to ask the question, just make it into an ‘I wonder’ statement instead. And it’s really helpful to be very concrete with the I wonder, so “I wonder if you choose this or this. I wonder if you can tell me one thing. I wonder what happened with that.” The more specific and concrete you are, the better they will be able to answer you while still remaining in their hearts. Being vague with kids is another relationship killer. And that’s for another podcast.

But just be aware, your ‘I wonder’ statements should be very clear and concise to be the most effective. So, catch yourself or rephrase after you’ve asked the question and see what happens. See if you get more than you thought you would. See if it diffuses the intensity of frustration. See if they say, “yeah, this happened and this happened” and see if you get a different reaction than you normally do. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And then if that’s true, or maybe you try it and it doesn’t go at all like what you thought, and you just want to bounce some of those scenarios off me and get some perspective – Please email me. I’d be happy to hear from you. [email protected]. So I would love to hear how this goes. But please remember the more you use ‘I wonder’ statements with your kids, the more you preserve the relationship. And the more your kids are able to remain in their hearts, which is where they truly are the happiest and where they want to be and where they should be developmentally. They will eventually become cognitive, they will eventually use their brain more than they use anything else. But don’t rush that, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s okay for them to live in their hearts for now because it will eventually come.

So if you haven’t already, please sign up for my newsletter at thekidcounselor.com/newsletter. I’d love to be able to send you all of the content that I have. And in a future episode, we will talk through another really important concept in the play therapy world, which is “what is important is not what a child knows, but what a child believes.” And there’s lots of great stuff to talk about with that. So in a future episode, we will talk about what a child knows versus what a child believes. As always, thank you for being a part of the Play Therapy Podcast family. We will talk again soon. Bye.

Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.

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