Last Modified: January 5, 2024 | Published: June 27, 2023
We know our kids can get into some sticky situations with friends and at school. These six steps help you teach problem-solving skills that will last them a lifetime. It’s worth it! You’ll feel closer, too, as you work together to navigate these concerns.
Try these six steps to work on problem-solving with your child.
Step one: Listen and validate feelings
When our children come to us with a concern, the most important thing we can do is listen. Let your child vent their frustrations and concerns to you without trying to problem solve. Really listen. Then share back any emotions you may be hearing.
Example A: Your child has come to you upset because a group member for one of their class projects is not participating. Your child is worried they are going to fail.
You can say, “Olive, thanks for coming to me.” “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated.”
Example B: Your child is scared about a choice their friend is making. You can say, “Olive, thanks for coming to me.” “It sounds like you are feeling scared and concerned about the choices your friend is making.”
Step two: Did you hear any cognitive distortions?
Next, help your child sort through any cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are thinking errors that leave us feeling worse about ourselves or a situation.
Often when we have a strong feeling or opinion about something, we may have some thinking errors. We may also create thinking errors about another person. We may project someone is acting a certain way because of an idea in our mind. It may feel true. Feeling true and being true is not the same thing.
Thinking errors about another person often leaves us feeling better about ourselves but makes it hard to solve a problem. This happens because we feel justified about our viewpoint.
Thinking errors can also be about ourselves or our situation, often leaving us feeling worse about ourselves. You may notice when your child has a thinking error about themselves, they feel greater anxiety or are quick to anger.
Now it is time to help your child sort through any cognitive distortions.
Example A: If your child says, “Mom, I am going to get an F; this is the worst day of my life.” First, you would listen. Next, validate feelings. Now you want to look for any thinking errors.
You may say to your child, “Do you think it is true that you will get an F.” Your child may say, “Yes”.
What you want to do next is look for the facts. You would say “What facts do we have that you will fail.”
Your child may be distraught and not very open to looking at thinking errors. In these moments, I gently point them out, but I don’t spend much time trying to convince them they are in a thinking error.
Point out the thinking error by saying, “Yes, you are worried about your grade.” Then share with your child “We don’t have enough information to know if you will fail. Let’s come up with some ideas to solve this problem.”
Now it is time to move on to the next step with your child.
Example B: Your child is worried about their friend. Your child is concerned if they get their friend help, they will lose all their friends. Your child may say “I will lose all my friends if we intervene.” First listen and validate their feeling by saying “Yes, the situation is stressful. It sounds like you are feeling scared.”
Now mention the cognitive distortion by saying “We don’t have enough facts to know you will loose all your friends.” Follow up by asking your child “How would you like to move forward?”
Other common examples we hear
- If your child thought-jumps to not getting into college, first listen and validate feelings “It sounds like you are worried and stressed about your group member not pulling their weight.” Next, help your child sort through the cognitive distortion by saying, “Do you think it is true you won’t get into college due to this classmate?”
- If your child thought-jumps into thinking their teacher doesn’t like them by saying, “It’s my teacher’s fault I am not doing well; she just doesn’t like me.” first listen and hear their perspective.
Next, help your child think deeper about the situation. You can say, “Do you think it is true that your teacher doesn’t like you?” Follow up with, “Maybe your teacher is just frustrated that your work is being handed in late.”
Often when we are upset about a problem, we create stories in our mind that make the situation worse. You may ask your child what facts they have to back up their thoughts. First, validate feelings and their experience and then talk through possible thought distortions.
Step three: Attack the problem, not the person
Next, as a clinician, I always try and get people to find the problem. It is important to attack the problem not the person. As a human species, when we feel attacked, no matter who we are, we often become defensive. Becoming defensive doesn’t work well when trying to solve a problem.
Help your child find the problem.
Example A: If your child says, “Amelia is so lazy they never do their work, and they are always in trouble.” You would first validate what your child is feeling by saying, “Yes, it is frustrating to have a group member not working.”
Next, say to your child, “While this may or may not be true, calling another lazy or a troublemaker won’t solve the problem.” Finally, help your child see that the problem is a group member agreed to finish work that is not being completed.
Example B: Your child is worried about their friend. Your child is concerned if they get their friend help, they will lose all their friends. In this example, the problem is their friend is making choices that could get them hurt.
Step four: Brainstorm solutions with your child
There may be many solutions to your child’s problem. If there are many possible solutions, take out a piece of paper or, on your child’s whiteboard, list the problem and possible solutions.
Next, review each solution and consider each choice’s possible positive and negative consequences.
Some questions you may ask your child as you brainstorm:
- “If you picked that solution, what do you think could happen?”
- “If you responded that way, what might be the effect?”
- “Of the options we listed, which do you feel best about?”
Step five: Pick a solution
Now ask your child, “Now that we have thought about many different solutions, what do you think would be the best possible option?”
If you can, let your child pick and try out that option.
Step six: Follow up with your child
Follow up with your child about how it went and what they learned from the experience. Every experience has something to teach us if we pause to learn and reflect on the experience.
Also, help your child understand that they are only responsible for how they handle the situation. We can try our best, and it doesn’t always go as we have hoped.
This can be a challenge even for me as a clinician. I am responsible for my behavior, how I respond, and the choices I make. Let your child know they are responsible for how they handle themselves. The other person is responsible for how they handle themselves.
My hope for you is the solution your child tries works wonderfully and that the response they receive is positive. If it is not positive, help your child reflect on their behavior without taking responsibility for another person’s behavior. You are helping your child develop strong problem-solving skills and become a competent problem-solver.
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