The Daily Groove

"What Happened?!"

A crying child runs into the house from outside, seeking comfort. The well-meaning parent's first words: "What happened?!"

This common reaction is one of many subtle ways we teach our children values that we ourselves never consciously chose...

  • What happened (the past) is more important than what's happening now (the present).
  • Reason is more important than emotions. You can't simply have a feeling; you have to explain why.
  • Things happen TO you. You don't create your own experience.

A few decades later, this child will be reading Daily Groove messages reminding her to stay present, that feelings are important, and that we do create our own experiences! :)

The next time you're about to ask your child what happened, decide instead to be still — to be fully present with your child, appreciate his or her emotional journey, and enjoy the feeling of connection.

Comments (closed)

I swear I am not trying to be difficult...

just trying to understand.

But I think it is not a bad thing to ask "What happened?" when a child comes in crying. Did they fall and break an arm? Get stung by a bee? Did they see something that scared them? Did someone push them down? Are they injured from a fall out of a tree or off a bike? When do you ask? When is it OK to find out "What happened?"?

One of my sons was out in the front yard and touched dh's motorcycle, it was still hot from being ridden. He got a burn on his hand. He came in crying. I asked what happened. Is that wrong? And if so, what are you suppose to do?

I feel like I am only getting part of the information. Like don't do this... but what to do instead.

Heather in TUcson

Making sense

I know you're just trying to make sense of all this, Heather, and I imagine you're on the verge of an "AHA!" any day now. :)

What can make it difficult is that you have to let go of right/wrong thinking before what I'm saying will make any sense. As Einstein put it: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

I've written several posts about transcending right/wrong thinking: here, here, and here, for example.

If you re-read this Groove carefully, you'll notice that I never say that asking what happened is "bad" or that you "shouldn't" ever ask, and that I do offer a suggestion of what to do instead. (But it's an inner action, so it looks like doing nothing.)

Of course there will be circumstances in which you need to ask what happened, such as your example of the burnt hand. My point is that we often ask as a substitute for tuning in and being present, rather than as a supplement to attunement and presence.

In other words, get present, connect with your Inner Guidance, and then go with whatever feels right from that perspective.


Here's "what happened" for one reader who sent me this feedback (with permission to post it here)...

...I've been consciously making the effort to do just that - be still, be present, don't ask questions (such as "what happened"). What a difference. I really feel that I'm connecting, just allowing my daughter (4 yo) to be in her space and being there for her - not trying to solve any problems, not trying to make things easier/better but just loving her and accepting what's happening without judgement. A no-strings cuddle of love.

Love it. Once again, thank you....


And thank you, Michelle, for sharing your experience to inspire others. It really is so simple, the power of presence!


OK, I am still sort of out there. LOL

I do let my children have their emotions, let them cry just because they are sad or whatever. I have worked hard not to try and "fix" what might be the problem (when it is emotional) but my kids normally are not criers. SO if they came inside crying I would wonder what happened. If they just experienced something that made them sad... by all means cry cry cry. But I need to know that a trip to the ER isn't in order. I mean sometimes you get hurt so bad you just can't talk (usually that is a pretty obvious injury, but stll maybe not). As soon as I know it isn't life threatening then we switch to just letting them feel their feelings. I do that when they are happy too and laughing.

I just feel there is something that I am missing.

Heather in Tucson

Another perspective

If your child is able to cry, to come to you, AND to answer "what happened?" then he or she is very unlikely to be on the edge of death.

So why not just relax into the moment and let them tell you what happened when they are ready to go there?

Again, there's nothing "wrong" about asking. I'm only suggesting that you experiment with other ways of responding and see what happens. :)

Re: "What Happened?!"

I have read this advice before, and try to follow it, however I have the same sorts of questions as Heather. When my daughter runs in, crying or upset over something and I don't know why, it feels necessary to find out What Happened and if I need to do anything about it – does she have a splinter? A cat scratch? A concussion?

I do try to resist my temptation to jump to an explanation, and to wait for her to come up with the words she wants to tell me… but it often feels like I'm not doing my job!

maria, md, dd: 4 yo

What's your "job"?

Hi Maria... My response to you would be essentially the same as my responses to Heather. But I think you hit on something important when you say it feels like you're not doing your job.

Most parents never ask what the "job" of a parent is. Our culture indoctrinates us with a rather distorted picture of what parents are supposed to do, and we need to question not only the particulars but the very basis of it.

As a society we've put so much emphasis on avoiding pain, suffering, and death that we've let slip what makes life worth living: connection, presence, aliveness, the ability to see beauty and perfection amidst the chaos — the goodness of life. That goodness includes life's shadows, without which the light wouldn't appear so beautiful and interesting.

From that perspective, "what happened" is far less important than What Is, which, ironically, includes what happened. :)

My Job

What I'm getting out of this is that if my child came running inside crying, I would do my best to tend to what is happening at the moment without asking what happened. If they were burned, or fell off their bike, they would eventually tell me. I might ask them where it hurts, instead of what happened to make it hurt. That way, I could tend to the hurt instead of focusing on what happened in the recent past.

Please let me know if I'm onto it here... Thanks!

With Joy,

Not a parent

Not being a parent yet my response is from remembering being young.

It seems that if you raise your children to know that if they come to you in enough pain that they need to cry and you will hold them and support them without quizzing them or judging the actions that made them cry then as they get older they will feel more comfortable coming to you for comfort even when things happen in their life that they don't feel they can tell you about.

(That is one long sentence)

Be a lighthouse

Here's another perspective...

You can serve a distressed child by being like a lighthouse that helps them find their way back to Well-Being. The value of a lighthouse is simply that it's THERE — its presence offers reassurance that solid ground and relief from the storm are at hand. "What happened?" focuses their attention on the storm — the experience of separation from Well-Being — while simply being present and available, without judging or resisting their temporary illusion of separation, lets them reach for connection and Well-Being naturally.

PS: I should add that once your child is feeling connected and relatively calm, then they can benefit from telling you what happened. Inviting them to tell the story of what happened, from a place of connection, lets them process any unresolved aspects of the experience and may even be empowering. You can tell by how much they enjoy talking about their adventure!

Re: "What Happened?!"

Knowing my kids and being in tune w/them, if they come to me crying, they DO want me to do something. Usually they are hurt and just want me to comfort them, but I do ask if it isn't obvious. They seem to appreciate me asking!! So for us, asking, "What happened?" seems to be a positive thing.

And it doesn't imply that something happened TO them. Just that something happened. Whether by their actions, someone else's, or the forces of nature.

Re: "What Happened?!"

Julinda... The purpose of this daily groove is not to put a taboo on the phrase "What happened?" Rather, it's to encourage you to question why you ask and what values, beliefs, and patterns it may confer to your children. Children appreciate being asked what happened because they like attention and they like being heard, but that doesn't change the fact that the question causes their attention to shift according to those unquestioned beliefs and patterns.

While there is no direct harm in asking what happened, the cumulative effect of repeatedly shifting attention from one's here-and-now feelings to past external conditions is a subtle kind of alienation — a gradual diminishment of one's ability to be fully present and emotionally vulnerable.

Most members or our culture have, to varying degrees, been alienated in this way, and we inadvertently pass it on to our kids when, with the best of intentions, we ask them what happened in a knee-jerk, reactive way. Instead, I'm suggesting that you let go of the "need" to know what happened and deliberately choose to be fully present to your children's in-the-moment emotional processes, after which a little storytelling can be a good way to complement the healing process.

Re: "What Happened?!"

Maybe if I feel a need to ask I'll ask "What's going on?" instead. :)

Re: "What Happened?!"

^^^^I was just coming here to post something similar to the above comment (left quite some time ago!).
Since reading this DG I have shifted to asking "What's happening?", which is about NOW, and it does make quite a difference because with a present continuous question it focuses more on the feelings than the events leading up to them....