13-year-old Maddie was looking really upset whilst she was sitting at the computer.  Her Mum asked her what was wrong and Maddie explained that a couple of girls at school had been teasing her and a friend in a really nasty way. The bullies were boasting about it on Facebook. Her Mum was horrified at the conversation and asked her to print out what the girls were saying. She then  sat down with her and asked if she would like to do some problem solving. Maddie agreed, so they sat down and thought of all the things that could be done to solve the problem.

They came up with a list of about 15 things they could do that might help.  Her Mum then asked her to choose which one she wanted to try –she chose to phone a friend. The girl she rang was a mutual friend of Maddie and the two girls who had been so mean to her that day. She told the friend that her Mum had seen the conversation on Facebook, printed it out, and was going to go into the school the following morning to discuss it with the Head of Year… And then she waited…

In less than 15 minutes Maddie’s mobile started to ring. She was nervous about answering it but noticed that several e-mails had arrived from the girls and private messages on Facebook. The girls who had been so nasty to her that day were apologising profusely and begging Maddie to stop her Mum reporting it to the school. They also deleted the comments they had made on Facebook. Maddie’s home phone rang and one of the girls –to her credit – spoke to her and explained how sorry she was. Maddie’s mood changed from upset to giggling out loud that she had dealt with the problem. She was delighted at the effectiveness of phoning her friend and said to the girls that this time her Mum would not go in to the school.

As parents it is important to teach our children problem-solving skills. It is vital if our children are going to function independently when we are not around to sort their problems for them. Even children as young as three can think of things that may help a situation.

So how do we teach our children to problem solve?

Firstly it needs to be done at a time when the child is not highly emotional, and is calm enough to think clearly. When children are upset they just need comfort and empathy.

The basis of problem solving is to work out clearly what is the problem? What are some solutions? And then what is the best solution to try?

It is good if they can write out the problem – or we can write it if they are too young. Then they need to write as may solutions as they can possibly think of that might help. It is important at this point not to rule out any suggestions. Write down the silly ones too. They help lighten the mood and sometimes an element of them becomes part of the final solution! When they have come up with as many as they can think of, we can add a few suggestions of our own. We need to be positive, imaginative and humorous. If possible it is good to try to come up with 15 or 20 suggestions in total. The more creative the better!

Next we ask our child to go through the list and work out what the consequences of each choice might be. With our experience of life we may be able to foresee some possible consequences. Some suggestions may be destructive or illegal –so they can be ruled out. Sometimes we may be trying to find a solution to a problem that affects both us and our child (such as wanting them to keep their room tidy or do their fair share of walking the dog). In this case we can both rule out solutions that are not acceptable in our search for a solution that works for both of us.

It is then up to our child to select the solution that they most want to try first. It may be a combination of two or three of the suggestions. Our child can then try out the solution and see what happens. If it works, great. If it doesn’t then we can look back at the list and they can chose a different option to try until they find a solution that works. We need to remember to check in with how things are going to help our child work out whether the solution is effective or not. Our child needs to know that there are other options to try if the first possible solution does not work.  It is also good to comment when they have made good choices and sorted out a problem.

This technique can also be used for possible situations that have not even happened. Such as what would they do if a stranger asked them to help them find their dog in the woods? What would they do if a child hit them in the playground? Or if they saw another child being bullied? It can be used when playing a game to choose strategies that work. And it helps if we model effective problem solving our selves by thinking out loud and explaining why we are choosing to do certain things in our daily lives.

It can also be used if a child needs to make a decision. We can help them write out the decision that needs to be made, then work out the benefits and disadvantages of doing it. So if the decision is whether to do an extra activity after school, our child can sit down with us and work out all the benefits of the activity, (make new friends, learn a new skill, have fun)  and the disadvantages (may be tired after school, another activity may need to stop).

The most important thing to remember about problem-solving is it is the process of learning how to deal with a situation rather than just getting the right answers. Understanding how it works will really help our children deal with conflicts in the future and is an important skill in independent thinking.

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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