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The "What If" Game: Gaining Insight Into How Your Child Thinks

Apr 09, 2019
The "What If" Game

It’s fair to say that most parents worry about how their child would act in a potentially dangerous scenario. While many kids learn about “stranger danger” in school, it can be overlooked that abuse is most often perpetrated by someone the child or teen knows and trusts.

So how can you best prepare them to make the right decision when it comes to different scenarios? Enter the “What If” game. The object of this game is for parents or trusted adults to ask real-life scenario questions.

Next time you’re in the car or at the dinner table, think of a realistic situation that your child could be placed in. It’s important that when asking “What If” questions, that you include people that your child knows, such as their friends, teachers, family members, coaches or teammates. Starting a question with “What If” makes them open-ended, and can allow a child to think critically about a practical solution. It is important not to rely on “Would you” questions, where a child can answer in one word, often “yes” or “no.”

Before you dive in, remind your child that if these things ever happen, they won’t be in trouble if they tell an adult. These questions will work best if you first discuss setting boundaries. Introduce the “What if” game within the next week or two. Start out with questions about common, everyday possibilities, and then ease into more complex scenarios.

Common questions can include:

General Safety

  1. What if you were staying the night at a friend’s house and heard a noise in the middle of the night?
  2. What if you climbed a tree just fine by yourself, but you weren’t sure how to get down?
  3. What if the neighbor comes to our front door and we (parents/guardians) aren’t home?

Because there are hundreds of possible scenarios, we’ve provided some sample “What If” questions below.

Setting Safe Boundaries between Kids and Adults

  1. What if your teacher/coach asked you to keep a secret between just you and them, and it made you feel uncomfortable?
  2. What if someone we know (family member’s name) touched you in a way that made you feel unsafe?
  3. What would you do if your friend’s older brother asked you to look at naked pictures on his phone?

Teen Relationships

  1. What would you do if you saw someone threaten to harm their dating partner at school?
  2. What would you say to your friend if you knew she was going through her boyfriend’s phone and social media accounts without him knowing?
  3. What would you do if someone you were dating texted you all day to ask what you’re doing and who you’re with? Who would you tell?

By utilizing the “What If” game, you are showing your child that you are partners in this process and that you’re interested in preparing them for difficult situations that can arise. Kids should feel empowered to say what they truly feel, and not be told that their answer is wrong. Pay attention to your own non-verbal responses to your child’s answers.

It’s important to start talking early so that your child develops a sense of trust about coming to you or other trusted adults with their concerns. The Center for Family Safety and Healing provides quick tips on starting conversations with kids, here.

Additional Resources and Prevention 

National Child Abuse Hotline
1-800-4-a-Child (1-800-422-4453)

Lauren’s Kids
This free tool is often used in classrooms to help children identify three safe “grown up buddies.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)

Featured Expert

NCH Blog Author
Tamara Mapp
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

Tamara Mapp is the Director of Program Development and Implementation at The Center for Family Safety and Healing (TCFSH). She oversees staff members for home visitation, child assessment center, fostering connections and adult services. She also provides administrative support to behavioral health and research at TCFSH. Tamara is also responsible for various grants and programs that support the work of the organization. 

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.