How to answer when you don’t know

Our children look up to us as if we are experts in all things. We know so much that they are just learning. We are all grown up and they are still growing. Most of the time, we have the answers to their questions.

But there are times when we don’t. Hard things happen in the world and we struggle with our own feelings and understanding of the situation. We may feel like we are falling down on the job when our kids ask a question we can’t answer. But rest assured, you don’t have to have all the answers.

It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Or “Let’s see if we can find out together.”

Says Lindsay Braman, in a recent Instagram post, “Big questions from young kids are hard. The balance between dismissing or overwhelming with too-grown-up answers is hard to navigate. Here’s a north star to follow: most kids aren’t looking for facts and forecasting, they are looking for safety. We can soothe kids AND help build resilience to future adversity when our responses to these questions highlight strength, identity, and relationships [and help them] know that they are in a family that will keep them safe and support them even through really hard things.”

Here are a few tips for helping kids feel safe and supported when you don’t know how to answer their questions.

Give Yourself Time to Think

Sometimes, a child’s big questions catch us off guard. Maybe we are enjoying the flowers along the path during a walk, when suddenly the child feels safe enough to ask a big question. Give yourself time to attune to the subject by using an active listening technique. Rephrase the question and confirm your understanding of what was asked.

It’s possible that what you heard is not what they are really curious about. Taking the time to say, “It sounds like you…” and waiting for their answer buys you some time and lets them clarify exactly what they are curious about. 

Use the 4 Ws

Ask them one or more of the ‘who, what, where ,when and why’ questions. What made you think of that? Where did you hear about this? Who were you talking with about this? When did this come up? (Or How long have you been thinking about this?) Why are you wondering right now? Their answers to these questions will give you insight into what is prompting their concern, and help you respond in a way that addresses the underlying concerns even if you don’t have an answer to the question they asked.

Know that it’s OK to not know

If you don’t have an answer, be honest. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Often, our body language and tone of voice are more important than the words we say. Even without an answer, we can be reassuring. 

Have they asked a factual question? If it’s something you can learn together, let them know you can find the answer together.  If it’s a question that involves family values or relationships and you don’t have an immediate answer, reassure them that the topic is something you will revisit when you’ve had some time to think about it.  (And be sure to revisit it, so they know their concerns have been heard and valued.)

Despite our kids’ impression that we know everything, we are all imperfect human beings doing the best we can from one day to the next. When we don’t have the answers to their questions, honesty and reassurance that we will keep them safe and supported will go a long way to addressing their concerns.