6 Steps to Problem Solving

It could be early in the morning, late evening, or anytime in between when a problem crops up. The only consistency is that the challenging issue always rears its head at the wrong time- no matter what the clock is reading!

From a lost shoe, being teased or hurt by a sibling, to arriving after curfew or loosing a precious possession- problems are part and parcel of raising small souls!

(Have you ever watched anyone accompany their 18-year-old to college and say, “Wow, the last eighteen years have been incredibly easy!”)

Whether or not we face problems is not a choice that we are capable of making- life has a habit of throwing us curve balls at various intervals. The decision that is within our power is the reaction that we have to the challenges that face us.

Here are 6 simple steps that can be utilized with toddlers through teenagers:

1) LISTEN to the child’s feelings, needs, and desires.

Parent: You seem quite upset about the camping trip being canceled.

Child: Yes, I’m so mad! I had my knapsack all packed with great food and supplies last night, and all because of a silly storm it’s canceled!

2) Reflect your child’s viewpoint and summarize the issue.

Parent: After all that packing and preparation it’s really disappointing to be told that the trip has been called off.

3) Express your feelings.

Parent: I’m concerned that if you keep thinking about the canceled trip all weekend you won’t let yourself relax and enjoy the nice things we’re going to be doing as a family.

4) Brainstorm with your child.

Parent: I wonder if we put our heads together if we could come up with an idea that would make you feel better about the upcoming weekend.

Child: You and Dad/Mom could take my friends and me camping tomorrow when the storm is over.

5) Write down all ideas, no matter how unrealistic they are.

Parent: (writing) Ok, I’ve got that down. Any other ideas?

Child: Maybe we could go to Bear Mountains?

6) Together look at your list of ideas and decide which ideas you like and are practical and make a plan to actualize them.

Adult: How would you feel about going up to Grandpa’s summer home with a friend on Saturday and we could go fishing and have a barbecue?

Child: That’s great! Can Dylan and Taylor come along with us?


In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget everything (including ourselves!)

Grab an index card, jot down these simple 6 steps, and clip it to your front door, refrigerator, or near the phone!

Please let us know how this works for you and your family, and happy problem-solving!


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  1. This is a great idea. I have a class coming up next week for Head Start parents on the reservation. Do you mind if I teach the system to them?

    Good luck.

    Judy H.Wright, http://www.ArtichokePress.com
    PS: I am really proud of you for getting your newsletter out. I am frustrated and keep waiting for the fairies or grandsons to do it for me!!

  2. Llynn Huntley says:

    This does not work with a 12 1/2 year old boy.

  3. I can’t wait to try this with my 8 year old, I have such trouble tring to problems solve she get very angry when things do go her way..

  4. Good idea! My 8 yr. old AD/HD son gets so frustrated when things do go according to plan. It just rocks his little world. Just taking the time to hear him our will make a huge difference.

  5. A couple of similar variations:
    As a parent educator for the Parents As Teachers program I discuss with parents this 6-step Problem Solving Method:
    1. Identify the problem
    2. List the possible solutions or courses of action
    3. Weigh the possible solutions
    4. Choose a solution to try
    5. Put the solution into practice
    6. Evaluate the solution
    * This works well for parents to solve their own problems, but I prefer the following method for children preschool and above, as it prepares them to be responsible for their own choices and behaviors by solving their own issues (of course with the support and counsel of a loving, empathetic adult)…

    As a Parenting with Love and Logic facilitator I talk with parents about a similar 5-step technique:
    1. Provide a strong and sincere dose of empathy.
    “Oh man, I bet that is upsetting”
    2. Place the problem gently yet firmly on the shoulders of the problem-maker.
    “What are you going to do?”
    3. Ask for permission to share what “some kids” have tried.
    “Would you like to hear what some kids have tried?”
    4. Provide 2 or 3 alternatives for solving the problem.
    “Some kids might ______ how would that work for you?”
    5. Allow the child to solve or not solve the problem.
    “Good luck! Let me know how it turns out.”

    The goal is to prepare our child for the “Real World”. By being involved in the problem solving steps they take ownership, feel empowered, become logical, thinking beings, etc. …all very helpful skills to equip one for “real life”.

    When things “don’t work” look at:
    1. am I allowing anger or frustration to interfere
    2. am I using too much of my own energy, words, brain to solve a problem that is not mine
    3. am I being consistent
    4. have I given it enough time

  6. This will work well for changing deployment dates for military families. Those dates almost never stick!
    Military Moms Working at Home

  7. this ideas overlap very well with a book i’ve just read – emotionally intelligent parenting – it has similar steps – they can be remembered by fig tespn
    i own the problem
    goal – identify what you want
    think of all possible ways to reach goal
    evaluate all ways
    select the best idea
    plan how to execute it
    notice what happens (repeat all steps if necessary)

    i particularly liked encouraging my child to own the problem and the importance of planning how to execute the most suitable way of meeting their goal and re evaluating afterwards…..easy to do when all is calm…impossible when all 3 boys need me at once….


  8. It’s an important skill to teach to our children.these six steps showed my son how much I care about his problems.

  9. Are you serious? Try doing this with kids (mine are 6 and 9 ) who are having a fit about something and hitting each other and yelling and crying. They are not in the mood for brainstorming ideas and need to be in their rooms in a time out so I do not go nuts right along with them.

  10. Although this is an interesting approach that can work, I am concerned about always rescuing a child and having a solution. We cannot hold our own event for every one that gets canceled. At some point a child needs to realize how to deal with disappointment. We cannot always fix it. If we do so, our children will be unable to cope with things when they are let down. The inability to cope can lead to a miserable life.

  11. This would actually be a reward for my 2 1/2 yr old son after he has pushed his 19 month sister down the stairs and later threw a hard-cover book at her leaving her with a black eye. I don’t think he needs the positive attention after those actions. He needs to be made award that his actions are completely unacceptable. Now, how do I do this without beating him? Time out does not seem to work for him – not for 2 minutes, not for 60.

  12. I agree with Jennifer. I think it’s appropriate to listen for understanding and let the child know that you heard them by reflecting back, but I don’t agree that you need to “fix” all of their problems. You can help them in the meantime come up with a substitute activity, but I don’t believe it’s necessary to create another event to replace the one that is cancelled. I think kids need to learn coping skills too, and not when their teenagers, it’s too late.

  13. I gotta respond to the other posts. First, thanks to those who added more info. These are systems that work. I never felt like a natural parent so have studied and studied. And I keep reading to reinforce what I know and to learn more bits that will help me (which is why get Ellen’s emails! Thanks Ellen!).

    For both Vivian and Emily: There are many tools that you need in your “Parenting skills” tool box. This is one of them, and it’s a good one. But it is not, by far the only one. Keep reading Ellen’s essays for many more and there are fantastic books out there too. You can’t master the art of parenting with one skill. When a child has over stepped boundaries, they need to get the guidance to learn the boundaries. I also had to deal with a boy who has been very aggressive with his sister. Time out is the best response. Loving attention to the hurt child is important. But there’s more and I hope you see this and can get it:

    There may be other issues your son is dealing with if his behaviour is not within the normal range of the way siblings are.

    1. He may have sleep issues. If he’s not getting enough sleep he’ll be much harder to deal with. If YOU’re not getting enough sleep, you won’t be as effective of a parent too.

    2. Food allergies or sensitivities can play a big part in impulsivity. Blood sugar levels are also really important to pay attention to. Enough water can make a huge difference (again, watch these in your own life).

    3. I know this will upset some people, but there are kids whose lives are improved with meds. The right medication will speed up the brain’s processing so that the child will actually be able to see beyond the impulse.

    4. Some kids need to be around their home more, more mom or dad time. If a kid is in school or preschool, he may just need more of the anchor that home is. That might mean time in the park or at the zoo where he or she can run and “get large”.

    Last, when your kids are out of balance with the harder behaviours, stay strong and stay loving. Keep searching and you’ll find the solutions that will help you get through. I love the book and DVD “123 Magic” and highly recommend it. In my experience there’s no one system that stands alone. Find what works for each kid and when either of you fall on your face, get up again with forgiveness and love and try again. And watch Ellen’s great movie again.

    Wow, that was long winded! Hope it helps someone.

  14. Brinda Malhotra says:

    I had a similar experience, my 9 year olds school camp was postponed indefinately this week due to bad weather.
    He was really disappointed and chose to eat up most of his tuck that he was carrying..I promised to get him some more
    I get a call from his close buddy at school the night before the camp was due to leave asking me if the camp was on or off.
    So I said that it was off and the school had informed all of us and that did’nt he know. His answer was that “no I was just hoping that the postponed camp might have been cancelled and that we might still be going”
    Now they are all lookimg forward to going next week

  15. T – Take it to the Lord in prayer even as small as
    finding a shoe.

    L – Love and listen.

    C – Carefully proceed in time (remember the
    advice of yester years “let’s sleep on it”.
    Sometimes no action has to be taken at all and
    it works itself out. Sometimes your kid just
    needed to vent and touch base with you.

  16. Sometimes I don’t take enough time to empathize with my toddlers — even though I expect them to empathize when they have hurt each other’s feelings, etc. Thanks for the reminder.

    I also feel a need to respond to some of the posts above. First to Vivian and Emily…I don’t think this is a tool that could be used in every situation. Maybe, though, after a cool-off period or a time out — maybe then it could be used… My 2 1/2 year old boy is a whirlwind when he is mad…there is no reasoning with him in the angry moment. I put him in his room in his crib and let him know I’ll be back when he calms down…and fortunately time outs work for him. However — after he is calm — then I can talk to him — and he will reason. It is only after a cool off for him that he will apologize to his sister or brother or listen to me. Often I use this time to be able to say something like “I understand that you got mad when Jack took your toy, but it isn’t OK to hit him because he did that.” He seems to respond to this well.

    To Jennifer and Tracey…I think the example was just that…an example…not necessarily meant to imply that we as parents must either “replace” an event or solve our children’s problems. The essay didn’t say we must help our child find a replacement…simply brainstorm things that might make him/her feel better. Contrary to the post that felt this would be rescuing our kids from their problems…I completely see this the opposite. I think this little exercise would teach our children how to solve them on their own…that having used this exercise with our kids a few times and they would be better equipped to shake off life’s disappointments on their own, find their bootstraps on their own and soon maybe not even come to us to help them hammer out a solution. I think the post said “at some point kids must learn how to deal with disappointment” or something to that effect…and I think this exercise does that by helping them identify how they are feeling and how they are going to cope with those feelings…and lastly how they are going to move on and get over their disappointment.

  17. Thank you everybody for all your comments (especially the “long winded” ones!). Its very helpful for me to read all of your responses and thoughts.

  18. Does not work with a 3 year old who is already in tantrum stage becuase something went horribly wrong in her little world. I have tried this with my 6 year old son and worked with some success we will “sleep on it” and see tomorrow how he is doing. Great responses from everyone and good to know that I am not the only mom who puts her kids in time out in their rooms so I don’t strangle them or myself.

  19. These techniques remind me a lot of the techniques that are taught in Mazlish/Faber books “Liberated Parents, Liberated Children” and all their “How To Talk…..” series. It mentions these techniques and many more for dealing with all kinds of situations, including sibling rivalry (in fact they have whole book devoted to it “Siblings Without Rivalry”). I have learned so much from them and I wondered how I muddled through parenting without them!

  20. Sue, thank you for addressing the previous posts and putting the original essay in context. I appreciated the idea that this is a way to coach our children to deal with disappointing situations and hurt feelings…

  21. …and thanks to Laya for those tips on peripheral solutions that are physiologically related (like blood sugar, hydration, and sleep). it’s so easy to overlook the underlying issues that exaggerate outbursts

  22. I do appreciate Aunt Laya’s comments also. Especially addressing the unpopular method of medicating. It has been an enormous blessing for our son.

  23. Thanks, Ellen, for this post and to posters for all the thoughtful comments.
    As a teacher, it’s interesting to me that the methods discussed above are basically versions of the Scientific Method we learn in elementary school:

    Identify a Problem
    Form a Hypothesis
    Test the Hypothesis
    Analyze the Data
    Draw a Conclusion

    As a parent and grandparent, I know that helping kids to transfer this method (or a similar one) to problem-solving in their personal lives gives them tools they need to deal with their frustrations and disappointments, so they can grow up to be responsible, independent adults, who are able to cope with life. I am frustrated by what I have seen as a large number of parents who are unwilling to allow their children to ever experience pain or disappointment and are constantly “rescuing” them, as Jim Fay terms it. I shudder to think that someday we may have a world full of adults who are all waiting for someone else to soothe their hurts and solve their problems.

  24. I appreciate that the original discussion was focused on 6 steps to help with hurt feelings and the steps are very helpful, however what I read some parents experiencing is a block in their way to deliver such a teachable moment, which has sparked alot of discussion.
    New to the parenting world and very curious, I can see how irreplaceable ‘time’ can be in the solving of problems, any problems big or small.
    I read the stories of impossible moments where the solution is a timeout and I think, ‘aleast they are taking time’. Of course guildlines for safety are followed, but let there be some kind of time, and then like a wound one form of the healing begins, a step to recovery.

    I agree with a teachable moment, and taking advantage of prime opportunities, but like many have voiced before me, “The teachable moment sometimes comes in the form of silence, patience, and time.” This I think is perhaps going to be one of the hardest challenges I will face as a parent, for so many reasons. Please send sense of humour for Tool Kit.

    I like the analogies used to help parents in uncontrollable situations remember how to problem solve, but I can defintaley identify with choosing those wonderful steps as not being an option all the time, let me remember them for later though. So in those moments, which I am bound to experience, I hope for Mind ( Maintain that there is a problem), Body ( Believe in a solution), and Soul ( Stay open).

    Thanks for your “time”, it’s all worth it