Conflict # 41 – The Trouble with ‘Why’

Years ago, I provided counseling to a fifteen year-old boy; call him “Skip”. His parents, “Chad” and “Juanita”, put him into our treatment center to address his anger, depression, bad behavior and poor school work.

A few months after starting treatment, Skip did something that irritated his parents greatly. He made choices that ruined their plans for Christmas. They were not only angry, but also confused.

In a family therapy session, Chad said to Skip, “Just tell me why you did that. All I want to know is why. (No answer.) Just tell me why!”

Skip looked down, shook his head slowly, and said, barely audibly, “I don’t know”.

“What do you mean you don’t know!? How could you mess up like that when you knew we were counting on you?!” Skip’s head dropped lower and he started to cry. Juanita exhaled loudly and she and Chad shared a moment of frustration.

They believed that understanding Skip’s behavior would help them resolve conflict and help Skip learn to do better. But I say … not so fast.

There are at least two problems with demanding to know why:

Firstly, bad choices are usually impulsive choices; because of that, there’s no reasoning behind them. The offender can’t possibly explain “why”.

Secondly, when you demand a reason, the offender experiences the shame of feeling stupid in addition to being wrong. So, now the offender might tell himself, ‘not only am I bad, I’m also dumb, because I can’t figure out why I do stupid stuff. There’s something wrong with me.’ This will not help him keep the lines of communication open.

By the way, don’t think this only applies to youngsters. You probably know an adult who has acted badly and couldn’t explain her actions if you put a gun to her head.

Would you consider stopping this business of demanding explanations when people act impulsively or in a way that defies logic? If so, and if you’d like to know a better way to approach this obstacle to conflict resolution, please give me a call at 219-309-3928. I’d be more than glad to talk to you.

Thanks for reading!