Teaching problem-solving

Poor behaviour is often a symptom of some turmoil in a child’s life. What surprises many parents is that listening empathetically can often be more effective in reducing a child’s stress than trying to ‘fix’ things. Recently, Rachel, a mother of a five year old, told me she felt she had made a big step forward with her daughter after a recent coaching session with me. Previously, most mornings ended up in shouting matches as her daughter dragged her heels and took enormous amounts of time to put her socks on and find her school bag and get her lunch into her bag. She was never ready on time. Mandy, the five year old, consistently moaned about school – her constant complaint was, “I don’t want to go to school, Mum. I don’t feel well.” Rachel used all the standard lines. “You’ll be fine once you get there”, “You always end up having a good time”, and she usually ended up shouting something like, “For goodness sake! Can’t you just get ready on time for once!” They were not making a bit of difference. Mandy repeated her moaning, unhappy cycle every day. It had become a ‘dance’ – every morning there was a similar pattern of reactions and frustrations. Rachel was more than ready for a change and welcomed my suggestions to try a few new ‘dance steps’ and see what happens.

I advised her to not worry when Mandy shared her reluctance to go to school. Instead, pause and give her some time. (This is hard when you are trying to get out of the door!) Get down to her level, look at her and say something along the lines of, “You sound a bit sad about going to school. Is this a good time for a cuddle?” The hard part was to try not to add any advice or solutions. Rachel did this and, almost immediately, Mandy responded to the change in style. She stopped her moaning, took Mum up on her offer for a cuddle and then, almost magically, got herself ready for school. Mandy got to talk about being sad about going to school and wishing that she could stay at home. She felt chuffed that she had expressed herself and that her Mum had taken some time to understand!

Rachel had not changed anything in the situation. She had not promised a reward, given any solutions or even growled. The morning routine continued and there were two people who were quite happy with the outcome. Parents genuinely want the best for their children. They really want them to be successful, confident and happy. I would never argue with that desire, but I might have different ideas about the best ways to achieve those goals. We can protect and provide for our kids while they are little – as they move more and more out from under our wings, much of their success and happiness will depend on two very important things – their skill at solving their own problems, and their confidence to do that solving.

As parents, we should help them develop their strength and confidence in problem-solving and not just continually reinforce the idea that they need us to sort everything for them. Children love to be given the belief that we think they are capable of solving some of their own problems. It makes them feel important and respected. Children also want to know that we are not afraid of their problems. When they see us frantically trying to rescue them from a challenge, they work out that problems are something to be avoided or worried about or even handed over to somebody else more capable. Imagine a scenario where your child can’t find anyone to play with during lunchtime at school. The temptation for many of us is to use one of the following strategies, all of which undermine a child’s problem-solving confidence –

  • Too many suggestions – “Why don’t you just play on your own, or go to the library, or start a game kids will want to join, or ask the teacher to find you someone to play with?”
  • Insinuate that you think they are at fault – “Are you sure you are being friendly so that the other children will want to play with you?” “Well, you have not got a friend because you are just not trying hard enough.” “It’s not that difficult to find a playmate so just keep looking.”
  • Dismiss their ideas – “Forget that, I’ve got a much better idea.”
  • Not take the problem seriously – “When I was your age I didn’t always have a friend either. It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
  • Make the problem seem too big – “If you can’t make friends at this stage, what on earth will you be like when you are at intermediate school?”

Sometimes we don’t hear their problem at all but, instead, react against the emotions our children are expressing, especially as children often express their anxiety and frustration in unpleasant ways. We need to hear what a child is saying underneath their tears or tantrum. Maybe, behind their tirade about hating school and everyone being mean to them, is a feeling they can’t put into words yet, something like, “I don’t know what to do when I get to school. I feel lost and alone.” It is so easy to see the bad behaviour and miss the depth of feeling underneath it. When you address the feeling, you are so much more likely to connect to your child. When you are connected, you can coach your child to solve their problems much more successfully. Nod and wait. Be prepared to be patient and just sit with them. It is tempting to fill the space with words of advice because parents are wired to be helpful. Instead, use the time to acknowledge their feelings so that they know at least one person in the world knows what they are going through.

Children, like adults, have a deep need for someone else to ‘get them’ and to really understand what they are feeling. When someone else takes the time and effort to see past the words – and hear what the heart is saying – then they feel loved. It’s that simple, but still rather difficult to do. A great ‘flow on’ effect from listening to what your children are saying and encouraging them to solve their problems is that it opens communication up. Your children feel safe about sharing opinions because they know that you will honour their thoughts and there won’t be a need to defend or justify themselves. The likelihood is they will share more and more. There will be times when they struggle with a problem that you can see a solution to. Build a bridge to your advice but don’t force it upon them. This could sound something like, “Samuel, I have some ideas on what you could do at lunchtime. If you are interested, I would be happy to share them with you. I will just be doing some work in the garden – if you want to hear them, come and ask me.”

Sometimes your child will have a very good idea but the timing is not practical – maybe they want to invite someone around to play at your place today so they will get on better with them at school. It’s a great idea, but maybe today is going to be too soon. You let them know that it is a good idea but won’t work on this occasion and then ask them to do some more problem-solving to make it work. Maybe they will say, “I could ring him and he could come tomorrow.” In this way you are letting your child know that ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘Never’ – it might just mean, “The idea is good, but there is still a problem. Can you find a way around this problem?” Try a few of these and see how your child responds.

One thing that will make every part of this process easier is learning the art of communication – listening and responding well is always an ongoing challenge. The rewards are worth it. It is great to have children who are happy to talk and children who feel empowered to work things out as well. A technique that will get children wanting to talk more is asking them great questions, questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer. Most children love a chance to imagine, dream or share their thoughts. You can start the ball rolling around the dinner table or when you are in the car. You can buy ‘conversation starter’ books or cards, but you can make up your own and I’ve put a few below to get you started. You may be surprised at how much your children love this opportunity (even if they groan when you bring out the questions). Just remember that this is not a time to query, refute or argue with them – just a chance to listen to.

Children also develop muscle for handling life’s challenges when you give them an opportunity to ‘revisit’ a situation after it has happened. There is so much to be learned from mistakes and ‘less-than-perfect’ behaviour. See it as a ‘teachable moment’ and get kids to plan what they would do next time. Imagine your family has been playing a board game together and one of your children finds herself losing the game. She panics as she sees her chances of winning slipping away. She impulsively tips over the board and storms off shouting that she never wins anything. How do you handle this? Some parents would growl, and others would just let the unpleasant moment slip by without too much comment. But there is an opportunity presenting itself – the child needs a plan in place for when she gets upset about losing. Start by asking her what she plans to do next time she is invited to join the family for a board game. Help her work out a plan for how to handle her big feelings of disappointment or panic when losing looks likely. Be firm and kind because she will need to know you expect a better result. She will appreciate having a plan and the chance to prove herself capable in tense situations. their thoughts.

  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why there?
  • What do you most enjoy doing with the family?
  • Other than playtime and lunchtime, what did you most enjoy at school today? Why?
  • How do you decide who your friends will be?
  • Which day is usually your best day each week?
  • If you could be a cartoon character, which one would you want to be?
  • What is your favourite time of the day?
  • If you had to be an animal, which one would you choose to be?
  • What is something you find easy to do and something you find hard to do?
  • If you could be the teacher for the day, what would you let your students do?
  • If a rich person gave you a million dollars, what would you do with it?