Problem-solving is a way of finding new and creative solutions in situations where you’re stuck, going round in circles, or can’t work through your issues.

Why problem-solving is important

As parents, the way you manage any problems or fighting in your relationship can protect your children from the downsides of conflict. The way you work through problems can also teach your children important skills for life.

When you find solutions together, you help the whole family have happier, healthier and stronger relationships.

Before you start problem-solving

It can help to set up rules for handling any conflict in your relationship. These can help you avoid the most common mistakes parents and partners make:

  • trying to force the other person to change
  • blaming each other for problems
  • giving in and accepting a situation that one partner isn’t happy with
  • avoiding the issue altogether.

Handling conflict and problem-solving: ground rules

Here are suggestions for setting up ground rules for problem-solving:

  • Agree that either person can raise a problem for discussion at any time.
  • Either person can say ‘no’ if they don’t want to talk about it right then, but make another time to discuss it – no more than a day after it first comes up.
  • If the discussion is getting heated, either person can call for a ‘break’ to calm down.
  • Agree to raise problems at a good time and place. For example, do it when the children aren’t present, when there’s enough time to discuss the issue, when there are no other competing demands such as dinner, and when you’re both calm.
  • Agree to try to listen so you both understand what the other person is saying.
  • Agree that you won’t raise conflict topics in front of other people.
  • Keep in mind that if one of you has a problem, you both have a problem.
  • Try to use the problem-solving steps below to discuss problems.

You know your rules are working when you can solve problems effectively and you both feel you’re working as a team.

Another good sign is when conflicts don’t cause lasting negative feelings such as anger and resentment.

And you know you’re going well when you can reconnect and spend positive time together after any conflicts.

Problem-solving: how to do it

1. Define the problem
Be clear and specific about the problem:

  • Describe what’s happening, how often it’s happening, and who’s involved.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Acknowledge your role or contribution to the problem.

Your partner is much more likely to take part if you take a neutral, non-blaming approach. To do this, you could try phrasing the issue as a question. For example, ‘Can we talk about how we’ll afford to buy the kids some birthday presents this year?’

2. Clarify what you each want
Be clear about what’s important to each of you. Ask questions to clarify your positions. For example:

  • Why is that so important?
  • Why do you want/need that?
  • Why are you concerned/worried/afraid about that?
  • Why don’t you want/need that?
  • What would be so awful about that?

Your goal is to have a clear understanding of what you both want. So just listen to each other’s answers, rather than debating them.

3. Brainstorm
Write down any possible solutions you can both come up with. Here are some tips to get you started on brainstorming:

  • Take turns to suggest ideas.
  • Try to get as many ideas as you can, even if some don’t seem relevant.
  • Wait until you’ve got all of the ideas down before you talk about them.
  • Include all ideas – rejecting your partner’s thoughts can hurt feelings and stall the process.

Remember that even ideas that seem silly and outrageous can stimulate other good ideas. Try for 8-10 ideas if you can.

4. Evaluate and choose
Look at each solution on your brainstorming list, with the aim of finding a practical outcome that can solve your problem:

  • Cross off ideas you both agree won’t work.
  • If one of you thinks an idea might work, leave it on the list.
  • List the advantages and disadvantages for each idea you have left on the list. Look at the advantages first – try to find something positive about every idea. But keep your discussion brief so you don’t get stuck on any one solution.
  • Cross off any suggestions that clearly have more disadvantages than advantages. Then select the best option or combination of options.
  • Rate the option or options from 1 (not very good) to 10 (very good).

Be prepared to compromise – but if you can’t find a solution, repeat the brainstorming step above. If this still doesn’t work, look for more information or ask other people for ideas.

5. Try the solution
Make a commitment to the solution by agreeing on the following:

  • Who will do what, when and where?
  • What will happen if we don’t do the things we’ve agreed on?
  • Do we need to keep track of how well our solution is working?
  • When will we review how the solution is going?

If your solution is related to the children, consider getting them involved in trying the solution, if it’s appropriate.

Top tip: writing down your agreed solution is a good idea.

6. Review
Review and discuss how your solution is going:

  • Is the solution working?
  • What has worked well? What hasn’t worked?
  • What could we do to make things work more smoothly?

If the agreement works, you’ll both notice there’s less conflict. If not, ask yourselves these questions:

  • Was the solution reasonable?
  • Did we both give and take?
  • Were rules and responsibilities clear to both of us?
  • Were consequences for breaking the agreement used, and were they appropriate?
  • Have other issues come up that we need to talk about before our solution will work?

You might find that you need to start the problem-solving process again to find a better solution.

But it’s normal to have some ups and downs along the way – allow 1-2 weeks for things to work.

If you’re in a relationship that involves domestic violence, call a helpline, seek support and do whatever you need to do to ensure your safety and your children’s safety.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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