Yet Another Approach to the ‘I don’t know syndrome’ with Adolescents

Mar 06, 2017

“What I like in a good author is not what he says,
but what he whispers.”

Logan Pearsall Smith
1865 – 1946

Yet Another Approach to the ‘I don’t know syndrome’ with Adolescents

TISA Description of the Problem: Whenever I go around the country giving workshops on clinical interviewing, one of the more common situations that clinicians, working with children and adolescents, ask about is the client, who repeatedly and stubbornly says, “I don’t know” to every question. It is maddening. Thus we have addressed this problem several times in our Interviewing Tip of the Month (see Tips #4 and #14). Here is yet another creative solution for transforming this clinical gremlin provided by a psychiatrist, Bonnie J. Ramsey, M.D.

Tip: Sometimes I find that one of the best ways to transform the “I don’t know syndrome” is to pro-actively try to dismantle it. After trying to establish rapport with an adolescent client, if I find that a resistance is building – that may soon erupt into the “I don’t know syndrome” – I will say something like the following:

“You know, if I ask you any questions that you don’t feel like answering, it’s okay not to answer. But one thing that you could do, that would be great, is instead of doing what a lot of other high school students do, which is to simply say, “I don’t know” just tell me that you don’t want to answer the question, and I’ll respect that. I know that you are too smart not to know the answer. And I just like people to be up front, and I’ll try to be the same with you.”
Subsequent to this approach I find that most kids don’t go on to use the “I don’t know” defense, and those clients that do, tend to minimize it. I also find that, paradoxically, after being given permission to not answer a question many kids choose to answer freely. I believe it has something to do with the respect inherent in the above approach.

TISA Follow-up: There is much wisdom in the above tip. It is a nice example of the power of transforming resistance by going with it instead of opposing it. It also cleverly implies to the student that he or she may be a bit beyond the immature behaviors of their peers, which can play into the student’s sense of pride in “being different than the pack.” I have found this tip to be a quite useful strategy.

Tip provided by:

Bonnie J. Ramsey, M.D.