Why problem-solving skills are important
Everybody needs to solve problems every day. But we’re not born with the skills we need to do this – we have to develop them.
When solving problems, it’s good to be able to:
listen and think calmly
- consider options and respect other people’s opinions and needs
- find constructive solutions, and sometimes work towards compromises.
These abilities are highly valued in both social and work situations – they’re skills for life.
When teenagers learn skills and strategies for problem-solving and sorting out conflicts by themselves, they feel better about themselves. They’re more independent and better placed to make good decisions on their own.
Problem-solving: six steps
Often you can solve problems by talking and compromising.
The following six steps for problem-solving are useful when you can’t find a solution. You can use them to work on most problems – both yours and your child’s.
You might like to download and use our problem-solving worksheet (PDF: 121kb) – it can help you come up with a solution together by guiding you through the process step by step.
When you’re working on a problem with your child, it’s a good idea to do it when everyone is calm and can think clearly – this way, your child will be more likely to want to find a solution. Arrange a time when you won’t be interrupted, and thank your child for joining in to solve the problem.
1. Identify the problem
The first step in problem-solving is working out exactly what the problem is. Then put it into words that make it solvable. For example:
- ‘You’ve been using other people’s things a lot without asking first.’
- ‘I noticed that the last two Saturdays when you went out, you didn’t call us to let us know where you were.’
Focus on the issue, not on the emotion or the person. For example, try to avoid saying things like, ‘Why don’t you remember to call when you’re late? Don’t you care enough to let me know?’ Your child could feel attacked and get defensive, or feel frustrated because she doesn’t know how to fix the problem.
You can also head off defensiveness in your child by being reassuring. Perhaps say something like, ‘It’s important that you go out with your friends. We just need to find a way for you to go out and for us to feel you’re safe. I know we’ll be able to sort it out together’.
2. Think about why it’s a problem
Help your child describe what’s causing the problem and where it’s coming from. It might help to consider the answers to questions like these:
- Why is this so important to you?
- Why do you need this?
- What do you think might happen?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- What’s upsetting you?
Try to listen without arguing or debating – this is your chance to really hear what’s going on with your child. Encourage him to use statements such as ‘I need … I want … I feel …’, and try using these phrases yourself. Be open about the reasons for your concerns.
3. Brainstorm possible solutions
Make a list of all the possible ways you could solve the problem. You’re looking for a range of possibilities, both sensible and not so sensible. Try to avoid judging or debating these yet.
If your child has trouble coming up with some, start her off with some suggestions of your own. You could set the tone by making a crazy suggestion first – funny or extreme solutions can end up provoking a more serious or feasible option. Try to come up with at least eight possible solutions together.
Write down all the possibilities.
4. Evaluate the solutions
Look at the solutions in turn, talking about positives and negatives of each one. Consider the pros before the cons – this way, no-one will feel that their suggestions are being criticised.
After making a list of the pros and cons, cross off the options where the negatives clearly outweigh the positives. Now rate each solution from 0 (not good) to 10 (very good). This will help you sort out the most promising solutions.
The solution you choose should be one that you can put into practice and that will solve the problem.
If you haven’t been able to find one, go back to step 3 and look for some different solutions. It might help to talk to other people, such as other family members, to get a fresh range of ideas.
Sometimes you might not be able to find a solution that makes you both happy. But by compromising, you should be able to find a solution you can both live with.
5. Put the solution into action
Once you’ve agreed on a solution, plan exactly how it will work. It can help to do this in writing, and to include the following points:
- Who will do what?
- When will they do it?
- What’s needed to put the solution into action?
You could also talk about when you’ll meet again to look at how the solution is working.
Your child might need some role-playing or coaching to feel confident with his solution. For example, if he’s going to try to resolve a fight with a friend, he might find it helpful to practise with you what he’s going to say.
6. Evaluate the outcome
Once your child has put the plan into action, you need to check how it went.
There might be hiccups or obstacles along the way, so you’ll need to give the solution time to work. Also note that not all solutions will work. Sometimes you’ll need to try more than one solution. Part of effective problem-solving is being able to adapt when things don’t go as well as expected.
Ask your child the following questions:
- What has worked well?
- What hasn’t worked so well?
- What could you or we do differently to make the solution work more smoothly?
If the solution hasn’t worked, go back to step 1 of this problem-solving strategy and start again. Perhaps the problem wasn’t what you thought it was, or the solutions weren’t quite right.