Effective Problem Solving Strategies: How Do You Teach Children To Responsibly Solve Their Own Problems?

“I don’t know what’s up with my friends lately.  It seems they never have time to hang out and do anything I think will be fun,” David complains to his mom, Chloe.

“Well there is so much you can do on your own, David.  What do you need your friends for?  Why don’t you go read one of those books from the library or practice your guitar?” Chloe suggests

“Agh, Mom, you just don’t understand.  Don’t you know what it’s like to want to hang out with your friends anymore?” David asks

“Well, if they don’t want to do the things you like, then what kind of friends are they?  Sounds like you need to find some new friends,” Chloe observes.

“I don’t need new friends.  I like the friends I have.  You just don’t get it, mom!” David grunts and storms out of the room.

Do you get into arguments with your children or spouse when your intention is to be helpful?

Both children and adults can have their own preferred problem-solving style. When you try to help others with your preferred style and that style differs from theirs, it can be frustrating for you and lead to conflicts and clashes.

Types of Problem Solving Styles:

Internal vs. External Problem Solvers:

  • Internal problem-solvers prefer to solve problems on their own and usually in their heads, not talking about them. You’ll often be able to tell something’s bothering them, but they don’t want to talk about it. Just let them know you are there should they want to talk about it. 

If they tend to “stew” instead of actually working through problems, offer suggestions they can use on their own to work through the problem, like writing in a journal about their feelings or writing a list of possible solutions and the pros/cons for each. 

  • External problem-solvers prefer to talk to someone about their problems. Their intention is often to get a reality check about their feelings or bounce off their ideas for a solution. 

Just because someone brings a problem to you to share does not mean they want you to solve it for them. They are usually perfectly capable of solving the problem, but just find it helpful to get support. Support means you treat them as though they are capable and show understanding for what they are going through without taking on their problem to solve.

Venters vs. Conquerors:

  • Venters get overwhelmed with emotions and need another person or an outlet (like writing) to process them, so they can think more clearly about a solution. When helping a venter, avoid giving advice. Instead, acknowledge their feelings until they start talking about the facts. Then encourage them to brainstorm solutions.

If they get stuck, gently help them move beyond venting by specifically asking, “Are you ready to brainstorm some solutions?”

If you are a venter and are upset about a problem, say to your partner, “Can I (or I need to) vent?” Or “Do you have time (specify the amount needed) to listen to a story about something that happened?” If you don’t ask or say this clearly a conqueror may start offering solutions or rush the process and you may end up defensive or in an argument. If those questions aren’t enough, you may need to be even more specific, saying, “I just want to share what happened. I already know what I’m going to do about it.” (Or “When I want opinions or advice, I’ll let you know.”)

  • Conquerors tend to skip overexpressing their feelings. They have feelings, but just don’t experience them strongly or talk about them. They focus on facts, logic, and solutions. When helping a conqueror problem solve, discuss their feelings long enough to show empathy and make sure there’s no denial or avoidance. Then move onto brainstorming solutions.

Regardless of someone’s style, the problem-solving strategies are the same and you still want to go through every step of the problem-solving process (working through feelings, identifying the core issue, and brainstorming solutions), but modify how long you stay at each step, depending on the problem-solving style of the person who has the problem.

As you go through these three steps, use the following effective problem-solving strategies  and skills:

Tips to Effective Problem solving

  • Identify whose problem it is. The person with the problem is the person responsible for the solution.
  • Listen attentively and effectively. Focus on feelings, not facts. Clarifying feelings helps the other person figure out a solution.
  • Clarify the problem and their feelings. Ask, “Are you feeling (their feelings) because (the event)?”
  • Avoid giving advice or your opinions, especially before the person has identified the problem and is talking about possible solutions. Giving advice, lectures or telling someone what they should feel or do sends the message, “You’re not capable of solving this problem on your own.” Always ask permission before offering your opinion or advice when someone else has the problem.
  • Brainstorm options. “What do you think can be done about it?”´If possible, write down all the ideas no matter how bad or silly they may seem. For younger children, always give them a minute or so to offer ideas. If they can’t think of any, offer suggestions in tentative ways by saying, “What would happen if…?” Some children may react negatively to writing down ideas, but others may enjoy it. Try it out. If the child reacts negatively you can try it again when that child is older.
  • Discuss the possible results of each idea. “What would happen if you did (idea #1)?” This is where the person can weed out unhelpful solutions.
  • Encourage the person to choose a solution. “So, what do you think is your best option?”
  • Get a commitment. “What will you do? When will you do it?” Practice what to say and even role-play, if necessary.
  • Follow-up. “When can you let me know how things went?”

You can use this problem-solving process to resolve problems in any relationship, just take into account the person’s problem-solving style and current problem-solving skills. Modify the process by spending more or less time at different steps to compensate for these individual differences. You will find more people will open up about their feelings and solutions will come more quickly over time.

For more tips on problem-solving and more information about The Parent’s Toolshop® and its unique Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system, take the 7 Keys To Parenting Success e-book. You will be less frustrated, respond more calmly, and feel more confident in any parenting situation. The best part is it’s free!  So what are you waiting for?  Sign up now!


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens of thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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