3 little words that most parents dread. The blank faced shoulder shrug and response of "I don't know" from your child can quickly turn the nature of any conversation into confrontation. In a world in which we rely so heavily on verbal communication this answer can feel like a big stop sign. It's no wonder parents feel exhausted by these responses but you are not alone, and I'm here to tell you that most times your child is telling you the truth when they say they don't know.
Now obviously as children develop the ability to lie and these words can be a quick defence when asked who took the last cookie. The function of those words in the situation is pretty clear they want to avoid undesirable consequences. This blog is not about those instances, however watch this space for future blogs on how to respond when your child lies, this blog is about the times the function of this response may initially appear less clear.
The I don't knows' we are focused on are the ones that make you sit back and wonder to yourself "why won't they just tell me". You know the times where a child is asked why they threw an object at a peer at school, the teen who isn't able to tell you why they want to pull out of the school play, or the child who is refusing to go to their other parents home for contact. In these situations we often feel that we are approaching these children and young people with warmth, genuine curiosity and a desire to assist the child to problem solve. Seeing the shrugged shoulders or hearing the mumbled I don't know and can make us feel powerless and frustrated when they can't tell us why. Note that. Can't not wont.
If it was easy to tell us, I assure you they genuinely would. Developmentally though there are a number of factors meaning that your young person maybe can't tell you more about what they are experiencing in the moment. This is because the area's in our brain that are most responsible for sense making and language processing are different to the areas that are responsible for emotions. In fact these can be often found referred to separately as the upstairs and downstairs brain. As adults we have had years for our upstairs brain to finish growing (usually not until our mid 20s) and to practice making sense of our experience (and even then it can still be difficult for us at times). Children haven't finished growing these regions of their brains let alone had the practice of transitioning between the two successfully.
When we try to interact with the upstairs brain of a child who is feeling a big emotions or who hasn't had other basic down stairs brain needs met (like enough sleep, something to eat and time to move), they may not be able to regulate themselves enough to gain access to those higher levels. In fact they may be using all their effort and energy not to fall victim to the downstairs brains tendency to see things as a threat, managing their desire to escape the conversation or fight back.
When we as the adults are able to step back and recognise that their "I don't know" actually means "I can't access that part of my brain right now", we can shift our focus from using our upstairs brain to interrogate them, hold our downstairs brain back from feeling rejected and instead assist them to explore what they may need in order to return to a sense of safety and regulation in order to be able to put words to their experiences. Sometimes they can do that through physical sensory support, environmental changes, within specific relationships or simply with being given time and space. So next time you hear I don't know, take a breath and get curious because maybe in that exact moment they currently just don't know.