Language Development

Language Development: 5 Tips on How to Help Your Child Answer Why and When Questions

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Perhaps this has happened to you: your son comes home, looking battle weary and sporting a 2 inch rip in his new jeans. You, having assigned yourself the role of The Responsible Parent, are determined to get to the bottom of the matter.

Unfortunately, you forgot to take into account the power of The Silent One. The conversation goes something like this:

“Hi Mike. How was your day?”


“Put away your book bag-wait, what’s that?


“You have a tear in the brand new pants I bought you. How did that happen?”

“How did that happen?”

“The tear.”

“The tear?”

And so on, until you the parent decide to end the conversation before you go running madly into the night.

Children with weak language development often have difficulty answering what, when, why, where, and how questions. It can be frustrating for parents, especially when their child seems to be quite the conversationalist at dinner time. Often parents wonder if their children pretend ignorance on purpose.

In fact, for children with weak language development, it’s easier to initiate a conversation than respond to one. If you initiate the conversation, you’re in control (to a large extent) not only of the topic, but what details you discuss, and how long you discuss it. On the other hand, when children are asked a particular question, they need to be able to perform several complicated mental tasks:

1) Questions are abstract.

Most questions require your child to imagine a particular fact, concept, or event in their minds. When you ask your child “When do you want to eat your snack?” they need to picture a time in the future, and link that with wanting to eat their snack.

How will you get home?” requires your child to picture her actions sometime in the future. “Why do you want to go to your friend now?” means your child has to have an idea of how to satisfy his want.

Still, practice can help your child learn how to answer questions. Here are some tips you can use to help the child with weak language development learn how to answer why and when questions:

1) Ask your child’s opinions about everything.

When your child asks you for more juice, ask her playfully, “What you will do with the juice?” or “When should I give you another cup?”

If your child demands to wear his too-small red shirt, ask him, “What will you wear it with?”

2) Simplify questions.

Why questions are hard to answer. If you give a clue, however, it helps to narrow down the possibilities. Use your knowledge of your child to guide you. For example, if your child is angry, ask him, “Did you miss your turn to sit near the window in carpool today?”

3) Change why questions to what questions.

Instead of asking, “Why do you want to go to Dani’s house?” ask, “What will you do at Dani’s house?”

4) Give choices.

If your child has trouble even with what questions, change the question to multiple choice. For example, instead of asking, “What do you want for lunch?” ask “Do you want to eat hamburgers or tacos?”

If even this is hard for your child to answer, change one of the choices to a silly one: “Do you want to eat hamburgers or elephant ears?” will have your child laughing but will also help him respond correctly.

5) Rephrase her answers to why answers.

If your son answers that he’s tired, respond, “Oh, so that’s why you didn’t want to go outside. Because you’re tired.” This will help your child see the connection between what he wants and his actions. It also gives him numerous real-life examples of using the word “why.”

Just remember- answering questions is a skill that takes a lot of practice, but it can be done. You can use the many opportunities you have daily to practice, encouraging other members of the family to join in.

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  • Rachel Sep 30,2012 at 1:07 pm

    Hi Kim!

    I know how frustrating it is for both you and your son. Take a look at this post: How to Jump Start Your Child’s Language Skills and Transform the Way They Communicate, and you’ll find more games and suggestions on how to help your son.

    Also, within the next week and a half I’ll be putting up a completely new program to improve kids’ memory, attention, and expressive language skills- and it will be free. So check back so you’ll be able to get hold of it. I’ll also be running a giveaway.

  • kim Sep 29,2012 at 4:20 am

    My son is five years old and has expressive language issues. He doesn’t answer questions well at all. He has issues exlaining and expressing ideas sometimes. More when we ask him questions, than when he is telling us something. I don’t want him to be left behind in school and I want to do everything in my power to help him get past this. How do I help to to be able to comprehend and answer questions correctly with the correct response. Because right now, you never know what type of answer you will get to a question.

  • […] being unable to explain why you had a bad day in class, or why you want to go to a friend’s house. Or, what if you wanted […]

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