Recommended age: 5+
Self Awareness: Identify own feelings and emotions, increase self confidence
Self Management: Emotional regulation
Responsible Decision-making: Problem Solving
Problem solving is such an essential life skill that people of all ages, from toddlers to adults, use it on the daily basis.
We do it consciously and unconsciously. Where sometimes it's automatic for familiar or minor problems. And sometimes we're brought to a full stop by complex problems.
When we think about the process of problem solving, it is usually these 5 steps:
Define the problem.
Understand the problem.
Evaluate the solutions: Weight pros, cons, advantages, and risks.
Choose and apply the solution.
But is that too robotic? Even a bit simple? And for children, are they able to think this logically when facing a problem?
Without trying to overcomplicate the process, because we should be spending time solving problems, there are two questions I think is important to include for children's problem solving process.
The two questions will acknowledge the child behind the process and and make finding the appropriate solutions more effective.
Question 1: "How does the problem make you feel?"
After defining the problem, it is important for your child to be aware of how the problem makes them feel.
Feelings and problems go hand in hand. As problems can trigger feelings and feelings can indicate there is a problem.
One of my favorite quote that gives us a sensible perspective on feelings is by Lysa Terkeurst.
"Feelings are indicators, not dictators. They can indicate where your heart is in the moment, but that doesn't mean they have the right to dictate your behavior and boss you around."
Feelings are like our body's alarm system as it interprets what things mean to us.
When you include this question in your child's problem solving process, it helps them draw attention to their feelings so it does not dictate their behaviors. Since feelings are often experienced unconsciously, children are better able to navigate them if brought into awareness.
The other benefit of this question is it can reveal details to deepen the understanding of the problem and help with brainstorming solutions.
Let's look at an example scenario of how important details of the problem can be revealed:
Parent: "So you're saying the problem is you don't want Dylan to play with you because he is bossy and eventually ruins the game. But you don't want to tell him not to join you."
Parent: "Hmm… to help me understand more, I want to ask, how does this problem make you feel?"
James: "I don't know, it's just frustrating when Dylan joins in and plays with us, it always ends bad."
Parent: "Okay so why don't you want to tell him not to join?"
James: "Ummm, I have seen other kids do that and he becomes mean and bullies them. I'm afraid he will do that to me too."
Parent: "So you're feeling frustrated having to play with Dylan, and afraid Dylan will be mean and bully you."
James: "Yeah I think that's how I feel about it."
*Example scenarios are not based on any actual people.
By helping James be aware of his feelings, we reveal an important detail:
James' fear of being bullied by Dylan prevents him from simply telling Dylan not to play with him. This detail reveals the problem is both frustrating and fear provoking for him. Therefore, when considering solutions, it may need to address what is frustrating (Dylan joining James' play) and what is fear provoking (Dylan's potential to bully James).
Guidelines: On when applying this question with your child, it's not always easy for them to share how they feel.
Assume a curious non-directive stance. Be curious and ask a lot of questions.
Start your sentences with "I wonder…" , "what it sounds like to me…" "what I'm hearing is.."
Be non-judgmental and acknowledge what they say. Refrain from criticism or judgement.
You can help them identify feeling words but don't tell them how they should feel.
Question 2: "What do you want to achieve so it is no longer a problem?"
The second question to ask your child during their problem solving process is "what do you want to achieve so it is no longer a problem?" or in other ways, "what is my goal in solving this problem?" What I like about this question is when a child identifies the goal, they can be more intentional about solving the problem. Which can lead to more focused solutions.
The problem and the child's goal can be quite different. With the example above, the problem James stated is difficulty telling Dylan not to play with him. But James' goal can be to learn how to say no and stand up to James' bullying, or help James play more fair. See how understanding the goal can lead to different solutions?
Let's see how question 2 can be applied to James:
Parent: "The problem I'm hearing is you find it difficult to tell Dylan not to play with you because if you say no, he may bully you. But if you do play with him, it's a frustrating experience."
Parent: "Now that we know the problem, I want to you ask, what do you want to achieve so it is no longer a problem?"
James: "I don't know…"
Parent: "Okay, do you consider Dylan as your friend?"
James: "Sometimes. I mean we chat sometimes and that's okay. But when we play, it's baaad."
Parent: "Okay, well what would you like to see happen instead?"
James: "I think Dylan sees me as one of his few friends. And I don't want to be not friends with him... Maybe I just want him to play better, not be mean and bossy."
Parent: "Okay, would you say that is your goal for this problem?"
James: "Yeah I think so, maybe I can help Dylan learn how to play better."
Parent: "What about his bullying?"
James: "Well if I play with him, he wouldn't bully me."
Parent: "Okay great, it sounds like you identified your goal. Are you ready to brainstorm some ideas on how to achieve it?"
When applying this question with your child:
Provide them guidance on how to identify their goal of solving the problem.
Assume a curious but more directive stance, ask questions.
Paraphrase and clarify you understand what they mean.
Incorporating these two questions will make a difference in how your child solves their problems. Question one acknowledges the emotions associated to the problem and question two sets the goal and intention.
These two questions are not exclusive for children as everyone should consider them when solving problems. But when we teach this to children at an early age, the skills can be foundational to their social and emotional wellness.
And lastly, working together with children in their problem solving process strengthens our attunement with them.
Do you already use these questions with your children? How well did it work for you? Please leave a comment below!
If you would to see how to incorporate these questions in an activity with your child, check out our free printable, Solving Problems Together, a guide and teach activity.
Play Attune is about providing parents and professionals practical play activities and resources focused on enhancing children's social and emotional wellness. Behind every content we share is the belief that children learn valuable life skills through meaningful relationships and experiences.
Play Attune is created by William, a child and family psychotherapist with extensive experience working with families in various settings. We invite you to join us on learning more and contributing to shape our content!