It can be extremely frustrating to ask your child a question and for them to respond with an “I don’t know”. Even more so when it is a question you know they should have an answer too. As you keep nagging them to have their answer change and you still get bombarded with “I don’t know” after “I don’t know” everyone comes out frustrated and nothing has been solved.
Sometimes you need to stop and take a step back and look at the question you are asking them. If you ask your fifth grader what 2+2 is and they say I don’t know is completely different then asking your three year old why they misbehaved and they respond with I don’t know. Nagging and pressing them to come up with a different answer may not also get you one either. If you feel like you are getting frustrated take a breath and step back a moment, there may be some hidden meanings behind that I don’t know that you haven’t thought about.
Defiance & Control
It can be very easy the minute your child comes out and says I don’t know to think they are purposefully not answering you. Sometimes your child may be answering I don’t know in defiance. Stating I don’t know allows them to keep some of the control because you don’t know what they are thinking. Gives them the feeling as though they have power over you. Defiance and keeping control though are not the only reasons your child will answer with an I don’t know.
Need More Time To Process
Another reason your child may not know something is because you haven’t given them time to process what you have asked. Demanding an answer to a question they weren’t prepared for can send them into shut down mode. If you believe that I don’t know isn’t an appropriate answer to your question, then you can simply tell your child that they can have some time to think about it and get back with them in a little bit. Make sure they know that you expect a different answer then another I don’t know.
Anxiety & Fear
When a person’s anxiety rises their functioning skills decrease. If your child is easily overwhelmed their ability to think and respond goes down drastically. This can cause the defense mechanisms to activate quickly putting your child on the defense straight away, whether you are meaning to make them feel attacked or not. If you notice the amount of I don’t knows increases when your child is anxious try and eliminate what is making their anxiety increase so that they can move past it and get to where they can function. Your child may also feel shy or embarrassed. This can lead them to become frustrated, uninterested, and not wanting to engage in conversation. Helping them feel confident in their answers, and letting them know there is no reason to be shy or embarrassed by what they think or their answer.
Fear of Failure
Having the fear of failure can also cause your child to go into defense mode where they act like they don’t know anything when you know they do. This can be when you ask your fifth grader what 5+3 is knowing they have learned their math facts in previous school years and they respond with an I don’t know. Children who like to be perfectionists can pretend they don’t know something to get validation they would be right before they answer. This can lead them to second guessing their decisions or their answers.
Not Ready to Grow Up
Older children can also have an increase in pretending like they don’t know something because they want to stay young. They aren’t quite ready to be completely independent. This can be because they want extra attention from a parent, whose attention is elsewhere. There may be younger children in the house that are getting more attention and the older child wants to feel included in still needed assistance from their family.
There may be some hidden meaning behind your child’s I don’t know. So finding out what they may really mean can be key to helping them through. Some things your child could be saying to you through their I don’t know are:
- “I can’t do what you are asking.”
- “Please don’t be mad.”
- “Stop nagging”
- “I don’t have an answer”
- “I don’t want to have the wrong answer.”
How To Respond
It is ok for your child to not always have the answer. We don’t always have the answers. Let your child know that sometimes it is ok to not know, and sometimes you can either look to find the answer or think about it to come up with an answer. Through it all it is important to try and stay calm. If you need to take a step back and take a break. Come back to it later when everyone has had a chance to get their emotions under control.
I don’t know doesn’t always mean your child doesn’t want to talk to you, or give you an answer. It may mean they need help in figuring something out. You can sometimes rephrase the question to them and say “If you did know what would you say?” This gives them a break from having to have the right answer come back on them personally.
Other questions you can ask them could be, “What part do you know?” “What would be your best guess.”
More often than not they will have some kind of answer or may even have known the right one from the start. Don’t be afraid to walk away and come back. Ask your child what they want from you, you may not be giving them enough help or you are giving them way too much that they think you are nagging them. Make sure you know what their I don’t know really means so you can best help your child.
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Children who like to be perfectionists can pretend they don’t know something to get validation they would be right before they answer.
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