The 4 'Whats' of Negative Behavior

Teaching Children Self-Awareness and Accountability

Woman talking to her son

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Self-awareness is an important skill that helps kids understand not only why they do things, but how to better manage their own behavior. However, it is important to recognize that it is a skill that isn't always fully realized in kids. Fortunately, there are things that parents and caregivers can do to help kids become more self-aware.

Why Kids Struggle With Self-Awareness

If you ask a young child why they engaged in an inappropriate or negative behavior, they will often reply with "I don't know." This is an honest answer because many children may not know why they did something.

Adults frequently ask kids for explanations for their behavior. This is because adults think if they can get kids to explain it, children won't do it again.

The majority of parents are guilty of repeatedly asking this question. However, doing so rarely prevents the same behavior from occurring again in the future.

Asking our children why does not consistently change behavior, yet adults continue to do it anyway.

Unfortunately, when we get into the habit of continually asking “why” around negative behaviors, we may inadvertently train our children to make up excuses for their actions. Eventually, children may assume that if they can make up a good excuse, they can get out of trouble.

The problem is this doesn’t change the behavior. What children learn is that they can do what they want to do as long as they make up a good story about it. It also gives kids an opportunity to argue so that parents will be less likely to bring it up again.

How to Teach Self-Awareness

Michael Manos, PhD, head of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, has worked for more than 25 years in pediatric psychology, special education, and child and adolescent psychology. He suggests parents should stop asking our children why and start asking the 4 Whats.

Instead of focusing on why children did something, it is often more helpful to focus on what they did, what happened, and what they could have done instead.

Identify the Behavior and Consequences

After a child has engaged in a negative behavior, walk them through these steps.

  • Identify the behavior: Ask your child, "What did you do?" The first thing you need to do is help the child see the problem.
  • Focus on the consequences: The second step deals with the consequences of the child’s behavior. Ask your child, "What happened when you did that?"

These two questions identify a behavior and a consequence. Through this process, explains Dr. Manos, you are helping a child to learn to self-monitor—to look at their behavior and see what effect their behavior has on the environment and people around them.

This can be especially powerful for children with ADHD, who tend to have difficulty connecting the dots between their behavior and the consequences the behavior produces.

Dr. Manos describes a few caveats about implementing this approach. “Most children will not tell you what they did; they will blame someone else—the other child or you—if they have a long history of you asking them why. So they end up deflecting accountability.”

He suggests beginning with the first two questions initially. “The whole point here is to teach a child to monitor and to describe their own behavior, to observe themselves, and to observe the effect their actions have on the world around them,” he explains.

Encourage Thinking About Future Behaviors

Once a child begins to make gains in this understanding and awareness of their behaviors, parents can then add the next two questions, which are related to future behavior.

  • Encourage them to think about alternatives: Ask your child, "What could you have done instead?" This can help them think of other solutions to their problems.
  • Focus on future consequences: Once they have thought of some other solutions, ask them, "What would have happened if you had done that?"

“So future behavior, future consequences,” explains Dr. Manos. “The 4 Whats is a highly potent strategy, since many people aren’t self-aware, aren’t self-observant, and grow up to deflect blame, give excuses, and not be accountable.” The 4 Whats addresses this and helps a child learn and practice appropriate behavior to replace the inappropriate behavior.

As with all behavior management strategies, it is important to remember not to use the 4 Whats when you are upset or when your child is upset. Take a few moments to cool off before starting a conversation.

A calm and neutral, non-blaming approach will be more productive and conducive to learning. The experience will also be much more satisfying for both parents and children.

A Word From Verywell

Teaching self-awareness is a process that takes time. But helping kids to build this skill will help them in a range of settings as they go through life, from managing their own behavior and emotions to pursuing goals.

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.