Helping Children Solve Problems

Young children are full of questions but generally short on answers. They are quick to become upset but slow to generate solutions to the underlying problem.

Alternatively, most parents are full of answers and quick to generate solutions. Our typical response is to quickly intervene when we see our child struggling or upset and this desire to get involved is natural. This may make you (and even your child) feel better in the short run. However, it will likely hinder your child’s development in the long run.

The Hidden Dangers of Helping

  1. Eroding Self Confidence

    When you solve a problem for your child, you take ownership of your child’s problem. When you do that, you risk sending your child numerous messages which cumulatively erode his confidence in his own abilities:

    • You are not capable of solving this problem on your own.
    • I don’t have confidence in you.
    • You are not responsible.
    • You cannot succeed without my help.
  2. Eliminating Opportunities to Develop Problem-Solving Skills

    The adage “practice makes perfect” holds true with regard to learning to solve problems. When you solve your child’s problems, you eliminate his opportunities to solve problems. And if your child isn’t given the opportunity to practice solving problems, he will be slow to develop critical problem-solving skills. As your child becomes increasingly hesitant in his abilities to solve problems, he will likely begin relying more and more on a parent which further slows his development.

    child problem-solving and related issues

  3. Your Proposed Solution May Not Be Successful

    Any suggestion you propose may not make sense or be appealing to your child. So even if he agrees to implement it, he likely will not give it his full effort. In this case, he probably won’t be successful in resolving the problem since he did not make a whole-hearted attempt.

    Also, if you propose a solution and it does not work, your child will be able to blame you for the failure rather than take responsibility for the situation himself.

Try this at home

The next time your child comes to you with a problem, try the following 4-step process which I always recommended to my student’s parents.

  1. Have your child explain the situation. As he talks, listen to his full explanation without interjecting your own thoughts or asking clarifying questions. This way your child will have an opportunity to voice all concerns without feeling he was cut off.
  2. Repeat aloud your child’s concerns, asking follow up questions, as necessary, to make sure you understand the problem. By repeating his concerns, you allow him to feel that his words and concerns are important and you validate his feelings. In many instances, children simply want to feel that their concerns are heard and valid, so this approach may, on its own, help your child calm down.
  3. Ask your child if he has any ideas for how to solve his problem. If your child can suggest a possible solution, encourage him to implement them and report back to you. Some children simply need a little support and are happy to handle their own problem. If your child can’t suggest a possible solution, tell your child that you’re not sure how to solve the problem and wait for his response. He will likely be perplexed at your admission that you don’t have an answer. After all, parents are the source for answers!  After he gets over his shock, try redirecting the conversation back towards helping your child come up with his own solution. “You play with Billy more than I do. Do you think there’s another art tool he’d like to use instead of the crayons?” Or, “Before you started playing with your cars, you were talking about building a huge train track. Do you know where your favorite train is?”  By covertly putting the ball back in your child’s court, you empower him think of a possible solution and encourage him to implement it.
  4. Whether your child thought of a solution on his own or needed a little direction, check in with your child to see how his solution worked. Celebrate with him if the solution was a success (a “high-five” or hug is usually sufficient celebration) or offer support and begin brainstorming once more if the problem was not entirely solved.

parent and child solving problem together

What can you share with other parents?

How much encouragement does your child need to attempt to solve his own problem?  With time, have you noticed your child becoming more confident in his own problem-solving abilities?  How does your child respond when you tell him you don’t have the solution or answer he needs?

If you enjoyed reading this, please subscribe via RSS or via e-mail:

spread the word...

share your thoughts...

Images used under Creative Commons from Brian Moore.