Problem-Solving Skills: Learning to Collaborate

Children often have problems with not getting what they want (a toy, an outing, jumping on the couch, to hit someone) or having to do something they don’t want to do (chores, homework, getting ready for bed). By identifying these issues as problems for children and using a problem-solving strategy, you can help your child come up with a number of different options that could help with the problem. In this article, I will go over a basic problem-solving model that parents can use with their children.

Problem-solving strategies will help improve thinking abilities in your child. In addition, these strategies will help to develop collaborative skills so that your child’s ability to negotiate and compromise will be enhanced.

Often, when children can’t get what they want or have to do something they don’t want to do, they become frustrated and disappointed. Many children have difficulties being able to handle these two emotions, often resulting in temper tantrums, emotional outbursts, defiance and power struggles with parents. Using problem-solving strategies with children is a way to help children learn how to handle these emotions in a healthy manner.

Helping your child with problem-solving is just one parenting strategy you can use with your child when he or she is behaving inappropriately. Other strategies include using empathy by identifying feelings the child is expressing, ignoring inappropriate behaviors, distracting the child to more positive behaviors, using humour and being playful, comforting the child, and setting limits and consequences.

The following is a general problem-solving model that you can apply to any type of problem your child is struggling with.

Step 1. Identify the Problem

The first thing to do is to identify what the problem is. The problem is identified from the perspectives of the different people who are involved. Everyone gets a chance to tell their side of the story. Parents can assist at this point by helping each child to tell his or her story. If the problem is between parent and child, the parent again helps the child to express his or her opinion.

Sometimes, if emotions are too high, “now” is not the right time to engage in problem-solving. Often what is needed is a cooling-off period to let emotions settle before coming together to problem-solve.

Example: Dad, Julie and Mike:

Julie and Mike have a play date but start to argue with each other over the toys. Dad hears the arguing and notices some grabbing and pushing between the children and comes in to help out. Dad listens to both Julie and Mike as they each have time to tell their side of the story without being interrupted.

Example: Mom and Denise:

Mom has asked Denise to pick up her toys before watching TV. Mom sees Denise watching TV but the toys are still on the floor. Mom turns off the TV and reminds Denise about picking up the toys. Denise is very upset and starts to yell and cry. Mom leaves the room for 5 minutes and hears that Denise has stopped crying. Mom returns and says she understands that Denise was angry when she turned off the TV, but the rule was to pick up the toys first. Mom then listens without judgment to Denise when she says she forgot.

Step 2. Brainstorm Ideas to Solve the Problem

This is where everyone involved can make suggestions as to how to solve the problem. There is no judgment at this point about the ideas. There should be lots of ideas generated at this point.

Example: Dad, Julie and Mike:

Dad asks Julie and Mike for ideas on how to solve the problem. Dad listens to all the ideas without judgment, even if they don’t make sense or are not fair. Then dad comes up with some suggestions that would be fair, for example, Julie would have the toy for 5 minutes and then Mike would have the toy for 5 minutes; Dad will set the timer for 5 minutes. Dad also suggests that instead of 5 minutes with the toy, they could choose to set the timer for only 2 minutes. The other suggestion Dad makes is that he could put the toy away for that day and then bring it out next time they play together.

Example: Mom and Denise:

Mom asks Denise what would help for next time when she asks Denise to pick up her toys. Mom listens to some ideas that Denise comes up with, like letting her watch TV first and then she will pick up the toys, or reminding her to pick up her toys because she forgot. Mom listens to Denise’s ideas without commenting or making judgments. Then Mom expresses her point of view that she should only have to tell Denise once to pick up her toys. Mom does not lecture Denise and only states her idea briefly. Mom also comes up with some other ideas of how to make the situation work better next time, including reminding Denise only once more after asking the first time and then giving Denise a warning of a negative consequence such as not having dessert tonight, or not being able to watch TV, or Mom picking up the toys on the floor and putting them away for a week so Denise can’t play with them.

Step 3. Choose Options that Would Work

These options should be safe and do-able for everyone involved. Ideally, each person involved should give up a little bit of what they want so that each person gets something of what they want. This is called compromise and it is an important skill for everyone (parents included!) to learn.

This can be the most difficult part of the process, but also the most rewarding part when people learn to negotiate and compromise to come up with a collaborative solution to the problem.

By the end of this step, everyone involved should agree on what needs to be done, or what will happen if the problem comes up in the future.

Example: Dad, Julie and Mike:

Julie and Mike decide that they would like to play with the toy each for 3 minutes. Dad agrees to be available to set the timer for 3 minutes so that each child gets a turn.

Example: Mom and Denise:

Mom and Denise come up with a plan so that mom will tell Denise one time to pick up her toys. Mom will then come back in 5 minutes to check and if Denise has not picked up her toys, Mom will give Denise a reminder and tell her one more time to pick up the toys. Mom will also give Denise a warning that if she hasn’t picked up her toys in 5 more minutes, then there will be a negative consequence. Mom and Denise decide that the negative consequence will be Denise not being able to watch TV that afternoon.

Step 4. Re-Evaluation

After a time, check to see if the agreed upon strategies from Step 3 are working. If not, a new round of problem-solving needs to be initiated.

Example: Dad, Julie and Mike:

Dad will need to be available to set the timer and also monitor the sharing of the toy. Julie and Mike may also decide to extend the time to 5 minutes each. Or they may decide they don’t need the timer after all and are able to play with the toy together. Dad will monitor the situation and step in again if another problem arises, but for now it looks like this problem-solving strategy was successful.

Example: Mom and Denise:

The next day, mom asks Denise to pick up her toys off the floor. Mom is specific about what she wants so that Denise fully understands what is expected. Mom needs to come back in 5 minutes to check and when she does she notices that although Denise has started, there are still some toys left on the floor. Mom points this out to Denise in a non-critical manner and then repeats her request that Denise pick up the toys off the floor and also gives a warning that if they are not picked up in 5 minutes when she comes back to check, then Denise will not be able to watch TV later that afternoon. Mom then needs to return in 5 minutes to check. She does and notices that Denise has picked up all her toys. Mom expresses her appreciation to Denise and allows Denise to watch her TV program. Mom will continue to use this strategy and if Denise does not comply with picking up the toys after her second request, then Mom will follow through with the negative consequence and not allow Denise to watch TV.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

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Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC, CPT-S

MA, Counselling Psychology
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Certified Play Therapist – Supervisor
Child and Family Therapist


Kathy Eugster

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