October 3: Working Together to Solve a Problem
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
Today I want to share a strategy for problem solving during tricky parenting situations. Over the past few weeks, I have spoken with several parents whose child is stuck in a challenging behavior pattern. For example, a child who is always late for the school bus despite repeated reminders, a child who falls apart every time it’s time to turn off screens and transition to another activity, or a child who drops backpack, coat, and shoes in a pile by the door despite the family rule that items need to be hung up and put away when children come inside.
In situations where a child is stuck in a challenging behavior pattern and parents are flummoxed about how to break the cycle, I recommend taking a collaborative approach and working together with your child to identify the problem and devise a solution. Here’s what that might look like:
Begin by clearly defining the problem for yourself so you know exactly what it is that you want to discuss with your child. You may be frustrated or annoyed by an array of behaviors. I suggest starting with one behavior and defining it as specifically as possible. For example, rather than something general (“Our mornings are a disaster – this has to stop!”), try to identify a specific area where you would like to see change (“My child gets so involved with play that then we have to scramble to put on shoes and pack their backpack at the very last minute so we can make it to the bus”).
Carve out a quiet time when you can sit and talk one-on-one with your child: ideally siblings will be elsewhere or at least engaged in doing something else, and phones and other distractions will be put aside.
Whenever possible, start the conversation by talking with your child about something that is going well, such as:
“I’ve noticed that you’re really being responsible about packing your own bag for hockey practice. I really appreciate that.”
“It has been a big change for your sister to start a new school. Thank you for being so kind and patient with her while she gets used to things.”
Next present the tricky situation you would like to discuss as a shared problem for the two of you to try and figure out together:
“I’ve noticed that the mornings have been super stressful and I’m hoping we can be a problem-solving team and figure out a solution together.”
“It seems to me that there is a lot of yelling every time kids need to turn off screens. Have you noticed that? I’m wondering if we can work together to come up with a plan so there can be less yelling.”
Encourage your child to generate possible solutions. Express quiet confidence in the fact that your child can be a problem solver and display genuine interest in your child’s suggestions. You may want to use a whiteboard to write down ideas for possible solutions. Even if your child’s solution seems outlandish (“Hey dad, how about if I can just play on my iPad for as long as I want and you never tell me to stop”), write down all of the ideas. If your child doesn’t have any suggestions, that’s ok – just include your ideas.
Work together to evaluate each of the ideas on the list and pick one to try. You can present this plan as an experiment: you’re going to try the new plan for a specific period of time, perhaps a week, then meet together again to evaluate how things are going and assess whether the plan needs to be tweaked or possibly scrapped all together.
Finish the conversation by thanking your child for being a problem-solving partner with you and remind them that you are a team and, like many things in life, problem solving is often more effective when a team works together to come up with a solution.
My experience has been that often children and adolescents feel much more ownership over an experience like this when they have been active partners in trying to effect change. For younger children, you might want to come up with a subtle nonverbal signal to remind them about your plan. You can engage the signal if your child starts to revert to the old behavior, and then offer a thumbs up and a smile if they are able to shift to the new plan.