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Never Accept “Fine:” The Value of the Open-Ended Question

When talking with our kids about serious issues or trying to understand their lives, we might hear one phrase consistently: “It’s fine.” As parents, we can struggle to get beyond this answer. We feel like we hit a wall or that they do not want to talk to us. Other times, we assume that everything is fine and that our kids do not have much else to say. We can dive deeper with our kids and explore their worlds by using open-ended questions.

What Are Open-Ended Questions?

Open-ended questions are phrased in a way that requires a more thoughtful response from our kids. We might ask the basics at the end of the day or during dinner like:

  • “How was your day?”
  • “How was school today?”
  • “Did you have fun at soccer practice?”
  • “How are you feeling?”

When our kids give us one-word answers to these questions, we might feel like the answer is not sufficient. We might even think that our kids are purposefully withholding or that they do not want to share. Kids may be reluctant to discuss everything about their lives with their parents. However, when all we hear from kids is one-word or short responses like “I’m good” or “my day was fine,” we might feel like we know nothing about the lives of our kids.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions can follow-up some of the usual questions to get more information. Sometimes, we become so stuck in our routines and the humdrum of daily life that we ask questions reflexively without considering what we have said. Typically, the responses are also reflexive. Think about it: how often do you actually respond to the question, “How are you?” with a thoughtful and detailed response? Most people just say that they are “good” or “fine,” whether that is accurate or not.

Showing Genuine Interest

Asking open-ended questions can be a way of showing genuine interest in our kids’ lives. Parents may worry that questions can come across as “nosey” or “interrogating.” Sometimes, kids might continue to withhold information if they feel like we are crossing a boundary. Try to be natural and show a genuine interest in their day. We can get a conversation started and build rapport with our kids. 

Open-ended questions are an essential part of building active listening skills to demonstrate that we are invested in our child’s perspectives and interests. If your child continues to answer with one-word responses, rephrase the question or dive deeper. For example, instead of asking, “how was your day?” we can try:

  • “What was the best part of your day?”
  • “What was the most stressful part of your day?”
  • “What did you learn during your classes that you didn’t know yesterday?”

Additionally, we can use “props” for diving into more in-depth discussions with our kids. We might talk to our kids about music, movies, or shows. By having something to talk about, we can take the pressure off our kids yet still learn about them. For example:

  • “Who are your favorite musicians?”
  • “What was your favorite part of the movie we just watched?”
  • “What are your favorite video games?”

To dive deeper into our kids’ thoughts and emotions, we can then ask the “why?” questions. These questions get beyond the tangible parts of the day or identifying interests. When we ask “why?” questions, we gain insight into how our kids think and what they feel. We can try things like:

  • “Why do you enjoy playing video games?”
  • “Why did you feel stressed about that part of your day?”
  • “Why was that the best part of the movie?”

Finally, to continue getting more insight, we can ask questions about feelings. These questions yield thoughtful answers from our kids that let us know “how they feel” about their interests and lives. However, to get to these questions, we need to get into the specifics of their lives by asking open-ended questions and learning more “surface level” information. For example:

  • “How does this song make you feel?”
  • “How did you feel when you received a failing grade?”
  • “How does beating the last level of a video game feel to you?”

By showing an interest in your kid’s life, you can build the rapport necessary to connect with them on a deeper level. As parents, we often expect our kids to feel “automatically” comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with us. However, if we are frequently met with “it’s fine,” we might need to ask more thought-provoking questions to get the details that we want.
Parents might feel like their kids are not sharing anything about their lives. We might think our kids are secretive or withholding. As time goes on, we feel like we hardly know our own children when they only answer us with limited responses like, “it’s fine.” By asking open-ended questions, we can gain insight into our kids’ lives. Open-ended questions require more than a one-word answer and show that we are genuinely interested in the details of our kid’s day. We can build rapport and get more in-depth during the conversation by asking precisely how they feel about their day’s events. For more information and parenting tips, listen to the “Beyond Risk and Back” podcast with Aaron Huey of Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center. If your child is struggling with addiction or other problem behaviors, Fire Mountain can help you. Call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest.

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