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 you’re solving problems, it’s good to be able to:
- listen and think calmly
- consider options and respect other people’s opinions and needs
- negotiate and work towards compromises.
These are skills for life – they’re highly valued in both social and work situations.
When teenagers learn skills and strategies for problem-solving and sorting out conflicts by themselves, they feel good about themselves. They’re better placed to make good decisions on their own.
Problem-solving: 6 steps
Often you can solve problems by talking and negotiating.
The following 6 steps for problem-solving are useful when you can’t find a solution. You can use them to work on most problems, including difficult choices or decisions and conflicts between people.
If you practise these steps with your child at home, your child is more likely to use them with their own problems or conflicts with others.
You might like to download and use our problem-solving worksheet (PDF: 121kb). It’s a handy tool to use as you and your child work together through the 6 steps below.
1. Identify the problem
The first step in problem-solving is working out exactly what the problem is. This can help everyone understand the problem in the same way. It’s best to get everyone who’s affected by the problem together and then put the problem into words that make it solvable.
- ‘You’ve been invited to two birthday parties on the same day and you want to go to both.’
- ‘You have two big assignments due next Wednesday.’
- ‘We have different ideas about how you’ll get home from the party on Saturday.’
- ‘You and your sister have been arguing about using the Xbox.’
When you’re working on a problem with your child, it’s good 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.
2. Think about why it’s a problem
Help your child or children describe what’s causing the problem and where it’s coming from. It might help to consider 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 upsetting you?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Try to listen without arguing or debating. This is your chance to really hear what’s going on with your child. Encourage your child to use statements like ‘I need … I want … I feel …’, and try using these phrases yourself. Try to encourage your child to focus on the issue and keep blame out of this step.
Some conflict is natural and healthy, but too much isn’t a good thing. If you find you’re clashing with your child a lot, you can use conflict management strategies. This can make future conflict less likely, and it’s good for your family relationships too.
3. Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem
Make a list of all the possible ways you and your child 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 solutions, start them 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 sparking more helpful options. Try to come up with at least 5 possible solutions together.
For example, if your children are arguing about using the Xbox, here are some possible solutions:
- ‘We buy another Xbox so you don’t have to share.’
- ‘The two of you agree on when you can each use the Xbox.’
- ‘You each have set days for using the Xbox.’
- ‘You each get to use the Xbox for 30 minutes a day.’
- ‘You put away the Xbox until next year.’
Write down all your possible solutions.
4. Evaluate the solutions to the problem
Look at the pros and cons of all the suggested solutions in turn. This way, everyone will feel that their suggestions have been considered.
It might help to cross off solutions that you all agree aren’t acceptable. For example, you might all agree that leaving your children to agree on sharing the Xbox isn’t an option because they’ve already tried that and it hasn’t worked.
When you have a list of pros and cons for the remaining solutions, cross off the ones that have more negatives than 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 and your child choose should be one that your child can put into practice and that could solve the problem.
If you haven’t been able to find one that looks promising, go back to step 3 and look for some different solutions. It might help to talk to other people, like other family members, to get a fresh range of ideas.
Sometimes you might not be able to find a solution that makes everyone happy. But by negotiating and compromising, you should be able to find a solution that everyone can 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?
In the Xbox example, the agreed solution is ‘You each get to use the Xbox for 30 minutes a day’. Here’s how you could plan how the solution will work:
- Who will do what? Your children will have turns at different times of the day.
- When will they do it? One child will have the first turn after they finish their homework. The other child will have their turn after dinner, when their friends are playing.
- What’s needed? You need a timer, so each child knows when to stop.
You could also talk about when you’ll meet again to look at how the solution is working.
By putting time and energy into developing your child’s problem-solving skills, you send the message that you value your child’s input into important decisions and you think they’re capable of managing their own problems. This is good for your relationship with your child.
6. Evaluate the outcome of your problem-solving process
Once your child or children have put the plan into action, you need to check how it went and help them go through the process again if they need to.
Remember that your child will need to give the solution time to work and that not all solutions will work. Sometimes they’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 process and start again. Perhaps the problem wasn’t what you thought it was, or the solutions weren’t quite right.
Try to use these skills and steps when you have your own problems to solve or decisions to make. If your child sees you actively dealing with problems using this approach, they might be more likely to try it themselves.