November 7: Encouraging Independent Problem-Solving
Last week I presented a workshop for parents in a local school district titled, ‘Building Resilience and Managing Big Emotions’. A topic from the presentation that has been on my mind is how parents can support the development of independent problem-solving skills. Today I want to share a couple of tools parents can teach children to help them navigate new or unexpected situations. Keep in mind that part of the process of building a sense of competence and self-sufficiency is developing the ability to tolerate feelings of discomfort. Developing distress tolerance and the ability to persevere through challenging moments is a hallmark of resilience.
One useful tool is to teach children self-talk that supports independent problem solving. Specifically, help your child learn to ask themselves a series of questions when they are faced with an unexpected situation:
“Can I think of something that worked before (in an unexpected situation)?”
“What would someone I admire [my cousin, my sibling, my teacher] do or suggest in this situation?”
“Is there a way to break this problem into smaller pieces? That way I can try to tackle one piece at a time.”
“When was the last time I solved a problem? What worked that time?”
You can also teach your child scripts to coach themselves through a new or unexpected situation, such as:
“This is different, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
“Even though this is new I’m going to figure out one thing to try.”
“I didn’t expect that. Remember - I’ve handled unexpected things before!”
“This feels hard and I’m a kid who can do hard things.”
“I haven’t done this before but I’m going to keep trying and working on learning how.”
A great way to teach these tools is through modeling: when you are faced with a new or unexpected situation, verbalize your internal dialogue as a way to model the process for your child. That might look like: “Yikes, I didn’t expect that a pipe would burst. This feels really stressful! I’m going to take a breath and then make a plan. [quick pause] Ok, first I’ll turn off the water supply, then I’ll get some towels to soak up this mess, then I’ll call the plumber. I’m upset but I’m going to try my best to solve this problem.”
As with so many aspects of parenting, building resilience is a process that happens over the course of childhood. Many small moments of modeling, explaining, noticing, and coaching will accrue over time. Please don’t feel pressure to have these conversations all at once or to turn every tricky or unexpected situation into a teachable moment. Instead, think of supporting independent problem-solving as a long-term goal. When you have the bandwidth to employ one of these strategies, I hope you can pause to reflect and appreciate the fact that you are helping your child build a skill that will be useful throughout their lifetime.