Last week we spoke about asking questions and I briefly mentioned the wonderful developmental milestone simply known as the “why” phase. You know the one…the one that seems to begin around the age of 2-3 and then seemingly never disappears!

I’m kidding…it does get better, but it can also seem to last a very long time. Well, in honor of Curious Events Day – a day where we celebrate the great mysteries of the world such as crop circles or why socks seem to disappear after doing the laundry – I thought I would discuss this wonderful phase and how you can survive it without tearing your hair out!

Let’s look at the positive first

I want to start this all on a positive note. If your toddler has entered the why phase, congratulations! It’s a big step and it means that their cognition and language are progressing nicely along the developmental path. This phase typically begins as most early language phases do with the single word.

“why?”

It will become the question and answer to almost everything that you say to your child for quite some time. So, first, let’s celebrate it!

Why does this happen?

Ok, now that we celebrated why on earth are they doing this to us? Doesn’t your child know that it annoys the heck out of you that they say “why” to absolutely everything that you say?

-“Let’s get our shoes on so we can go outside”

“why?”

-“Time to take a bath”

“why?

-“Can you pick out the book we will read before bed tonight?”

“why?”

You see, this wonderful word can be the response to a question or a statement. It doesn’t matter really. What does matter is that the word is said, over and over and over again.

If you look at it from a developmental view, your child does not begin this phase to purposely irritate you. Rather, they have reached a cognitive phase where they are curious about the world around them. Their brains are growing and developing at such a rapid pace and they are just eager to learn about anything and everything.

Take a deep breath

Let’s all do it together…in through the nose, out through the mouth. It’s 9:00am and your child has already asked you “why” 30 times. How are you going to survive the rest of the day?

If we take a step out of the situation and really look at it for what it is – development – we may be able to remain calm for a little longer. I know it’s difficult for many of us (I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of this), but this phase is not about you. It’s not about them trying to make you angry…yet.

What can you do?

Well, aside from constantly reminding yourself that your toddler is not intentionally asking you “why” over and over to make you crazy, there are actually some ways to approach this phase that may keep you saner a little longer.

  1. Give Brief Answer

Remember that your child is young. They do not have the brain capacity to understand the lengthy answer that you may want to give them as to why something is or is not a particular way. You can give them a brief answer with a couple of words in the simplest format you can think of:

          We’re going to go to Grandma’s house this afternoon.

               Why?

               Because she misses you and wants to see you.

You don’t need to tell them that the real reason is because Grandma has found some old stuff of yours that she needs you to go through to decide what to keep and what to donate…that’s all just a bit much that your child most likely will not understand. But they do understand Grandma wanting to see them. Boom. Done.

  1. Don’t Ignore Them

I know it sounds tempting to simply ignore the behavior, but in this case, I’m going to advise against it. Typically, when we ignore a behavior it’s because we want to extinguish it…make it go away. If we don’t give them the attention, then they will stop engaging in the behavior.

Yet we don’t want our kids to stop asking why. I mean, we want them to stop asking a million times a day…but we don’t want them to stop all together. We still want to encourage curiosity and learning, so no matter how difficult it may be, try not to ignore them.

If it’s just getting to be too much for you, instead of ignoring them outright, try changing the subject to see if you can break the pattern.

  1. Know that you don’t always have the answer

And, once again, that’s ok. You don’t know everything. Why should you? It’s ok not to know the answer to one of their whys. But don’t just shut them down by saying “I don’t know”. Rather…

  1. Turn the why around on them.

I started doing this one with my niece when she was young and I continue to do it with clients and P (4 years old) when she entered the “why” phase. Here’s an example:

We’re going to go to Grandma’s house this afternoon

               Why?

               Because she misses you and wants to see you

               Why?

               You tell me why…

You see, I’ve already given the answer once. I can say it again if I feel I need to, but by the third time the “why” comes I flip it around…”You tell me why”. This gets them thinking and will also show you that they are in fact listening to you and engaging in the conversation. It almost reinforces the fact that they aren’t asking to annoy you, rather they’re asking to learn.

As your child gets older flipping the question around can really turn in to a nice game that allows them to display their creativity. It can actually be fun!

This too shall pass

It’s all about being patient…which I know we are all capable of being sometimes. Honestly, if you’re having a bad day, the last thing that you want to do is start engaging in the game of “why”. And I get it. We all get it.

But if you can take that deep breath and know that your child is just behaving exactly the way they are supposed to by asking “why”, you may be able to tolerate it a little longer. The above suggestions are not going to stop the phase…it will eventually transition into something else on its own. What they hopefully will do is help you navigate the phase in a way that can be more tolerable…maybe you’ll even find some fun in there…maybe. 😉

If you have any concern that your child has not reached this phase yet, please call your pediatrician and discuss it with them.