Curiosity is a parenting superpower.
As a parent or carer of young people we spend a lot of time thinking about our kids – everything from wondering how their day to is going, to how to get them to eat more vegetables, to how to help them become the best version of themselves as they grow. Did you know there are many things that help children grow into the best version of themselves, including their relationship with you? Young people’s brains, skills, competence and self-worth grow when parents and carers just think about them, enjoy a fun moment with them, or connect in a caring response when they are having a tough time.
Parents can also have curious conversations with kids to help their young person’s development. The conversations we have with children and teens can draw out and amplify the young person’s own reasoning, competence, and skills. These types of conversations that draw out the young person’s reasoning help grow brains and develop socio-emotional competence.
What’s socio-emotional competence? It’s a person’s ability to:
Express, receive and manage emotions,
Form, and maintain healthy relationships, and
Develop effective interpersonal and problem-solving skills.
The benefits of socio-emotional competence include:
Adaptability to change,
Ability to work towards goals,
More positive attitudes to self and others,
A sense of purpose, and
Reduced risk-taking and conduct problems.
Not only are these fantastic attributes but they are attributes employers are looking for in the next generation.
But how do curious conversations help with all this?
The reasoning that develops from young people responding to curious questions from adults in their lives is more powerful than the logical comments of the adults (parent, carer, teacher, counsellor, coach, or anyone who talks to children and teens). This is because the young person is more closely connected to the knowledge and ideas they are developing themselves than they would be to knowledge and ideas that are put onto them from another person – even if it would seem quicker and easier to just tell them something. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for the ‘teaching’ aspect of parenting and caregiving. It’s just that there are also times when using curiosity to help a young person discover and amplify their own skills and knowledges is extremely helpful.
Sounds great but how do you do it?
A great way to start a curious conversation is to notice a success – either with direct observation or in conversation. If times have been tough, you might have to really take a fresh look with an open mind to see a success. Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, author of “The Skill-ionaire in Every Child”, defines a success as “an experience of maintaining integrity and congruency with oneself in the face of a potential challenge”.
There are different types of successes, not just when things turn out ‘right’. Successes can also be times when a problem didn’t become bigger because the young person showed some restraint or sought help, or when the young person had some helpful ideas even if they weren’t able to act on them. In this last example the success is having the helpful ideas, and finding ways to be curious about the helpful ideas will amplify the young person’s sense of competence and connection to skills to better manage problems and challenges in the future over time.
Successes occur all the time. It’s just that we generally don’t stop and notice when things are going well and there aren’t any issues. There’s a couple of reasons for this. One is that our brains are primed for survival. An evolutionary response to help with survival is that our brains pay more attention to threats, problems, and issues. In the past this kept people alive, but these days it can lead to rumination on worries and a lack of attention to things that are going well. Another reason is that our brains just aren’t able to pay attention to every single thing that happens – there is simply too much that happens in life, and so our brains pay attention selectively. All this means that we generally take for granted times that go well, and we fail to catch our kids making good choices, helping, and managing challenging situation well.
So, once you notice something that went well for your child or teen what sorts of curious questions help get a curious conversation going?
If the success comes up in conversation (instead of something you’ve directly observed) it is helpful to reconnect the young person to the experience by first asking questions about the context to paint a detailed picture – kind of like if you were watching it happen on a movie. These are who, what, where, when, how questions. You might ask your young person something like, if I was watching a documentary on what happened what would I see? Or, if I was a fly on the wall what would I see and hear?
It’s best not to ask why questions at this stage because why questions activate a different part of the brain from the one context questions activate, and usually lead back to a focus on problems not skills and competence.
How questions are one of my favourite types of questions because they help people compliment themselves which is very powerful for a person’s sense of self-worth. And for people who have trouble accepting compliments, answering how questions can be a more subtle and acceptable way to talk about successes.
Once you’ve got a success to talk about, it’s good to ask elaborative questions. These are questions to elaborate on what happened … but it’s important it doesn’t come across as an interrogation. It’s not about checking what the child remembers and seeking accuracy. It’s about expanding the conversation in ways that are rewarding for the young person and the adult, and build the relationship. Express your interest, use respectful curiosity, and show appreciation by asking questions like:
How did that happen?
How did you manage to stay calm enough to think about a solution?
How did you manage to keep your worries at bay so you could …..?
What was going on in your mind when this was happening?
What do most kids tell themselves in a situation like this? Is that what you told yourself?
How did you get the best of the shy/sad/worried/etc feeling?
Have there been other times you’ve been able to get the best of the ___ feeling?
How does it feel to have done that?
What percentage of you wanted to snatch the ball? The other part of you – what was that part thinking?
What percentage of you believes that worry thought? What does the other percentage of you believe?
How does it feel to have kept the problem from getting bigger?
What difference did your choice to make to your day? How did it help the day go well? How did your choice stop your day from going downhill?
What would you like to remember from this?
What difference did your [actions] make to your friends?
Does this say anything about what’s important to you?
How did you look after yourself in this situation?
Were there any thoughts about the other kids that helped you with …?
When you are having these types of conversations it is helpful to use the young person’s words. Keeping with the young person’s words helps them stay connected to their memory and the story. If you start to use your own words or more adult words, then this can interfere with the young person’s experience of the memory and get in the way of the success conversation.
Some cautions with curious success conversations:
Don’t push the conversation. It’s okay to gently test the waters a few times but if the young person is not interested or experiences the success conversation as intrusive it won’t be effective and could end up a negative experience that impacts the relationship detrimentally.
Timing is everything.
Success conversations work best at a time the young person is feeling calm and settled. So, it’s best not to try a success conversation right after a big incident – give plenty of time to calm down and return to a settled feeling state before being curious about successes. Anytime within a week of the success will work.
Success conversations work best at a good time for the young person – this means not when they’d rather be doing a preferred activity or heading out the door to visit a friend.
Success conversations are a special type of conversation, and it will feel exciting to talk in these ways with young people…maybe so exciting you’d like to do it all the time. This probably won’t feel right for the young person. Try a success conversation once or twice a week, see you how your young person responds, and then decide how often is right for you. You can also have mini-success conversations that are more subtle and actually just a comment here or there e.g., “I appreciated you staying patient at the grocery store when I know it’s the last place you wanted to stop into on the way home from football”, “I noticed you shared your favourite toy with your little cousin – I bet that made her day”.
Conversations matter and the way we talk with young people makes a difference to their sense of themselves, their feelings of worth and competence and even their brains. A very old saying that’s still popular in neuroscience and psychology today is “neurons that fire together, wire together”. This means that curious conversations about successes, using appreciative comments or elaborative questions, build a web of information in the brain that then becomes more easily accessed – firing neurons together to wire them together in a web. The bigger and thicker that web, the more easily accessed the knowledge, skills, sense of competence and self-worth will be for the young person. In this way brains are built for socioemotional competence and all the associated benefits that come along with this type of maturity, and relationships become more connected and enriched.
So, let’s get curious!
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
All photos from Vecteezy Pro