Have you ever asked a child, “Why did you do that?” or “How do you feel about that?”

Has the response ever been, “I dunno”? A blank stare? 

Well, the truth is, the child is probably not lying. When he says that he doesn’t know why he did something, or how he’s feeling, he’s probably being honest. Let’s explain.

A child in the wake of something exciting might be operating out of his right brain (full of emotions) and we’re approaching him with our left brain (logic). So a child’s brain might be taken over with emotion if he does something that makes him feel embarrassed, or if he is so into a game that he hits his friend. A child in that moment might not be able to tell you he hit his friend. He might not be able to tell you he feels about the experience. He just might not be able to process that experience logically yet.

Now let’s add in the layer of trauma.

A child who has endured trauma may have a limited understanding of emotion. This child may have a brain that switches back and forth between being flooded with extreme emotion to completely dissociating, or feeling numb and disconnected from the world. Feelings that fall in the middle, those milder, more common feelings, are less likely to register and can be more difficult to identify. This child may clearly understand anger or fear, but have a harder time understanding silly or disappointed.

Asking him or will get you that dreaded response of, “I dunno.”

So what can you do? If a child has a hard time explaining , start by connecting to the emotional side first, rather than jumping in with logic. So if a child is running instead of walking in the classroom, instead of saying, “Why were you running?” you could say, “Wow, you seem to be really excited! Don’t forget, we have to walk in the classroom so that everyone is safe. I know it can be hard to remember the rules when we’re excited!”

If a child has a hard time saying like if he’s clearly upset but isn’t able to tell you anything about how it feels, you can try asking him to name he feels upset in his body. Linking emotions to bodily sensations can be powerful for kids. Most kids can identify that sick feeling in their stomach or those shaky hands that often come with stress or anxiety, even if they can’t name that emotion. Talking about can help him recognize that feeling (and the name that associates with it) next time that feeling creeps back up.

So instead of thinking of “I dunno” as an act of defiance, think of it as a child telling us the truth! We can’t expect them to always know the answers to our logical questions. Instead, we must meet them where they are and guide them into understanding.

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