Helping our kids problem solve and build resilience

Why should we teach our kids to problem solve?

No one goes through life stress and problem free. Everyone, adults and kids alike, will at some time during their lives encounter issues where they will have to relate to the situation, make decisions and problem solve. And the more equipped and experienced our kids are from an early age to do this, the more likely they are to deal with challenges in a way that allows them to move forward and use them as opportunities to learn about the world around them.

And if we support our kids to problem solve it will naturally boost their self-esteem. They will experience both the pleasure of being able to solve something for themselves, and the feeling of being trusted to do so.

Being able to problem solve makes the world a safer place to be as it gives us an opportunity to exert control over our environment, not just be controlled and led. Being used to problem solving gives a child the courage to go out and try new things; they know that if something goes wrong they are able to think for themselves and find solutions, to fix things and move on, without shame and blame. It is all about resilience and being better able to handle life’s bumps in the road.

Why is it so hard to let our kids problem solve?

Helicopter parenting: all we want is for our kids to be happy and most parents will do ANYTHING to make that happen. And it is often this ANYTHING which holds us back from ‘allowing’ our kids to solve their own problems. As soon as we see our kids getting into deep water, we jump in, pull them out and fix whatever needs to be fixed. We become helicopter parents; we hover over them on the lookout for problems, zoom in, scoop them up, fix the issues and gently put them down again. They don’t even have to think. While we do this out of deep love we are actually denying them valuable opportunities to learn, think and become resilient to future problems.

What happens when we problem solve for them?

  • We are taking away huge learning and developmental growth opportunities.
  • It can send a message that we don’t trust them.
  • We can disable them for the future.
  • Their ‘failures’ become our responsibilities. We try to fix things so our child never has to deal with failures; they can leave that to us too. Of course this means their successes are ours too because we never let them be independent enough to ‘own’ their successes either.

How to support our kids to become resilient and problem solve

  • Firstly we need to trust in our kids’ abilities to problem solve. That they are capable of doing it but might need a bit of support from us in the beginning.
  • Secondly we need to allow them to try, get it wrong and fail and trust them to give it another try. Failure is not a negative thing as it helps kids to learn. It is simply an opportunity to try again a different way, and an opportunity to start again. To ‘fail with back up’ helps kids become resilient!
  • Awareness: become aware of getting into ‘solving problems / fixing mode’ or giving advice or criticising and knowing when to STOP and just listen and let them go through with you as a support. 
  • STOP & PAUSE: Pausing helps take your emotions out of the equation and connect with what is going on for you. Emotion is your enemy when you’re trying to support your child. Remind yourself that what he says and does is not a reflection on you. You may not like how he is behaving, or even how he is thinking, but keep your emotions out of it, even if his behaviour impacts you. THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. You might feel sad about the issues that your child is going through – but they are HIS emotions, not yours!
  • Listen, acknowledge & show empathy: When your kids have problems a good place to start is by LISTENING
  • Don’t contradict your child’s emotions / feelings / problems / thoughts, just acknowledge that they are upset / disappointed / frustrated etc. and what they are upset about. Just come from a place of ‘I can hear what you are saying and I accept what you are saying, without judgment or the need to fix..
  • Start all conversations with empathy: Start from a place of understanding and put yourself in your child’s shoes before telling her what needs to change, i.e. ‘I can hear you are very upset that you didn’t get picked for the team, I understand you are disappointed right now and that is OK’.
  • Ask open-ended curious questions (not loaded or judging) to show you ARE listening and open to talking: ‘What happened there? What did you hope would have happened?’ etc.

Just having our views / feelings / situation acknowledged makes us feel better and more able to find solutions, or simply accept the situation. Once parents get past their fear of ‘just’ listening to their child’s situation and emotions without having to fix things they often find their kids are more open to the idea of problem solving together. Sometimes the child doesn’t want the problem to be solved but just wants to be listened to. Let them talk, with you as an active listener. And give them space and time to think. 70% of issues are resolved at this stage.

Brainstorm ALL solutions together

  • Your child may come up with silly ones here. So at this point just listen and maybe ask them about the consequences of these, i.e. if your child says, ‘I want to kill Sam because he didn’t invite me to his party!’ instead of saying, ‘you can’t do that or you will go to jail’, try to say, ‘wow that’s a big one, how would that work, what will happen if you do that, how do you think Sam’s parents would feel?’ etc. Then say, ‘what else could you do’…..
  • Ask what they could do to improve the situation / fix what is broken. You can ask, ‘what can you do next / what will you do now?’ You could also ask, ‘can I help you in any way? / what do you want from me?’ etc.
  • Choose the child’s best solution and talk it through by breaking it down into manageable tasks.
  • You can ask if they need help from someone to implement this solution i.e. a teacher, a good friend? You can also ask ‘what do you need from me’? ‘How can I help you’? 
  • Let them get it wrong if necessary: when you have helped them come up with a solution you MUST trust them to try and maybe get it wrong. Yes it hurts if they fail (and is very hard for many parents to stand by and watch), but that is part of the learning process.

The most important part is to be there for them if they fail. Be there with open arms, not an, ‘I told you so!’. They KNOW they got it wrong; they don’t need you pointing that out on top of their failure. Your job is to bite your tongue and then help them problem solve again!

It is not our job to stop our kids having negative feelings; it is our job to teach them what to do with those feelings.

CLICK here to read about ‘how to build resilience in our child’.

Best wishes,

Mette Theilmann, Founder of Predictable Parenting and creator of The Parenting Community App