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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

March 11: How Big Is This Problem?

Last week I gave a presentation about teaching children skills for managing stress and worries. One of the strategies I presented is helping children learn to ‘right size’ a problem. That is, teaching them to put stressful moments in perspective by thinking about the size of a problem in relation to other difficult circumstances they have faced (or can imagine). This strategy is most effective if it is introduced when your child is calm and able to engage in conversation, rather than in the midst of a stressful moment.


To play the ‘how big is the problem’ game, you and your child can take turns imagining tricky situations and rating them on a scale. Some children prefer a visual scale, simply moving hands together or apart to indicate if the problem feels large, medium, or small. Others respond well to the concept of a 5-point scale. One of my favorite playful ways to think about the size of the problem is to decide whether something is an ant-, sheep-, or elephant-sized problem.


Ideally, you and your child can both present examples of problems. Depending on the age of your child, you might suggest situations such as:

  • Falling off your bike or scooter and getting hurt

  • Accidentally spilling your beverage at the dinner table

  • Sneaking food into a room where it’s not allowed and accidentally spilling on the furniture

  • Losing your pencil

  • Losing your favorite stuffie

  • Finding out you weren’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party

  • Finding out you’re not a starting player on a team

  • Being cut from a team

  • Auditioning for a lead in the play and being cast in the ensemble

  • Forgetting to study for a test and getting a poor grade

  • Doing a lot of studying for a test but getting a poor grade


Playing the ‘how big is the problem?’ game can happen in brief moments when you’re in transit or waiting somewhere. The overarching goal is to help your child develop perspective regarding the fact that there are many different types of stressful situations in life and thinking about them in relation to other stressors often helps put things in context. Over time, the hope is that your child can reference their own personal scale in order to put things in perspective in the moment, right when a problem occurs. For example, “If breaking a bone is an elephant problem, I guess forgetting to wear pajamas on pajama day isn’t really an elephant – it’s more of a sheep.”


Everyone’s scale is different, and talking about your ratings and how they differ from your child’s can help build empathy and understanding of the fact that everyone processes experiences in their own unique way. While it may be tempting, the goal is not to convince your child that a particular problem is ‘only a 3 and definitely not a 5.’ Rather, the goal of a conversation about ‘how big is the problem’ is for you and your child to share your thoughts and perspective, to appreciate the similarities and differences in your attitudes, and to gain a more nuanced understanding of the ways that stressful situations can be kept in perspective.


In addition, conversations about the size of the problem present a nice opportunity for talking about how feelings are temporary, and even challenging emotions such as frustration and disappointment will abate over time. If you sprinkle in conversations about the size of the problem throughout the course of your days, you will hopefully find that over time (perhaps many months), your child is sometimes able to identify moments where the problem isn’t as big as it initially seemed. At other times, your child may experience a problem that feels really awful for them, and using language about the size of the problem can help them communicate the extent of their distress.


Another useful way to use the concept of ‘size of the problem’ is to model problem solving and talk out loud about the strategies you use to help yourself manage stressful situations:

  • “I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get tickets to the concert I wanted to see. When I first found out, it felt like an elephant problem, but now I made a different fun plan for that weekend and it feels like more of an ant problem.”

  • “I know it was an accident, but I felt bad when I spilled a big glass of water on the floor. Then I remembered, ‘I can just get a dish cloth and clean this up.’ Now the problem doesn’t feel so big.”

  • “Ugh – I can’t find the car keys. I don’t like it when I lose things. This feels like a 5 out of 5. I think I’ll ask for some help finding them. Getting help from my family will help me feel better.”

In addition, parents can teach children coping statements for managing stressful situations such as:

  • “This feels like an elephant problem. What can I do to shrink it down to a sheep or an ant?”

  • “I’m upset, but I’ll figure this out.”

  • I don’t like this situation, but I can handle it. When it first happened, it felt like a 5 out of 5, but now I’m remembering it’s not as bad as when I fell off my bike last week.”

  • “This is a tough situation and I’m a kid who can do hard things.”

  • This isn’t what I wanted, but I’ll survive.”

  • “This feels like an elephant problem. Have I faced a problem like this before? What strategies did I use to solve that problem or to help myself feel better?




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