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Problem Solving

November 30, 2014 by HealthyFamilies BC

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As children grow they’ll come across problems they need to sort out themselves. You won’t always be there to give your child advice, but you can help him develop skills and strategies so he can solve problems on his own.


Everybody needs to solve problems every day. But we’re not born with the skills we need to do this - we have to develop them.

When solving problems, it’s good to be able to:

  • listen and think calmly
  • consider options and respect other people’s opinions and needs
  • find constructive solutions and, sometimes, work towards compromises.

When children and teens learn skills and strategies to sort out problems and resolve conflicts by themselves, they feel better about themselves and more independent. They’re better placed to make good decisions on their own.

Steps to solving problems

Problems can often be solved by talking and compromising. The following steps are useful when trying to solve a problem - either yours or your child’s.

Tip: When you’re working on a problem with your child, it’s a good idea to do it when everyone’s calm and can think clearly - this way, your child will be more likely to want to find a solution. Arrange a time when you won’t be interrupted, and thank your child for joining in to solve the problem.

1. Identify the problem
The first step is to work out exactly what the problem is. Then put it into words that make it solvable. For example:

  • “You’ve been using other people’s things without asking first.”
  • “I noticed that when you went out on Saturday, you didn’t call us to let us know where you were.”

Focus on the issue, not on the emotion or the person. For example, you could say something like, “It’s important that you go out with your friends. We just need to find a way for you to go out and for us to know you’re safe. I’m sure we can sort it out together”.

2. Why is it a problem?
Help your child describe what’s causing the problem and where it’s coming from. It might help to consider the answers to questions like these:

  • Why is this so important to you?
  • Why do you need this?
  • What do you think might happen?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • What’s upsetting you?

Try to listen without arguing or debating - this is your chance to really hear what’s going on with your child. Encourage him to use statements such as “I need … I want … I feel …”, and try using these phrases yourself. Be open about the reasons for your concerns.

3. Brainstorm possible solutions
Make a list of all the possible ways the problem could be solved. You’re looking for a range of possibilities, both sensible and maybe not so sensible. Try to avoid judging or debating these yet.

If your child has trouble coming up with some, start her off with some suggestions of your own. You could set the tone by first making a crazy suggestion - funny or extreme solutions can end up provoking a more serious or feasible option.

Write down all the possibilities.

4. Evaluate the solutions
Look at the solutions in turn, talking about positives and negatives of each one. Consider the pros before the cons - this way, no-one will feel that their suggestions are being criticised.

After making a list of the pros and cons, cross off the options for which the negatives clearly outweigh the positives. Now rate each solution from 0 (not good) to 10 (very good). This will help you sort out the most promising solutions.

The solution you choose should be one that can be put into practice and will solve the problem. If you haven’t been able to find one, try going back to step 3 and look for some different solutions. You might find it helpful to talk to other people, such as other family members, to get a fresh range of ideas.

Tip: Sometimes you might not be able to find a solution that makes you both happy. But by compromising, you should be able to find a solution you can both live with.

5. Put the solution into action
Once you’ve agreed on a solution, plan exactly how it will work. It can help to do this in writing, and to include the following points:

  • Who will do what?
  • When will they do it?
  • What’s needed to put the solution into action?

You could also talk about when you'll meet again to look at how the solution is working.

Your child might need some role-playing or coaching to feel confident with her solution. For example, if she’s going to try to resolve a conflict with a friend, she might find it helpful to practise with you what she’s going to say.

6. Evaluate the outcome
Once your child has put the plan into action, you need to check how it went.

There might be hiccups or obstacles along the way, so you’ll need to give the solution time to work. Also note that not all solutions will work. Sometimes you’ll need to try more than one solution. Part of effective problem-solving is being able to adapt when things don’t go as well as expected.

Ask your child the following questions:

  • What has worked well?
  • What hasn’t worked so well?
  • What could you/we do differently to make the solution work more smoothly?

If the solution hasn’t worked, go back to step 1 of this problem-solving strategy and start again. Perhaps the problem wasn’t what you thought it was, or the solutions weren’t quite right.

Did you know?
By putting time and energy into developing your child’s problem-solving skills, you’re sending the message that you value your child’s input into decisions that affect his life. This can enhance your relationship with your child.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Helping Adolescents Develop More Mature Ways of Thinking 
HealthLink BC: Problem Solving to Manage Stress

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  3. Pregnancy & Parenting
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    2. Babies (0-12 months)
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