Psychological Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents

Helping Your Child or Teen Become an Effective Problem-Solver

Published on: March 15, 2015  

Helping Your Child or Teen Become an Effective Problem-Solver

Encouraging your child/teen to develop an effective process to solve personal and interpersonal problems is an important life skill that can be applied at home, in school, in social situations, and in community events, clubs and activities.  Successfully identifying a problem, developing emotional control, considering solutions and consequences and then taking thoughtful steps towards solving problems helps to build self-confidence and resilience. Moreover, developing an effective problem solving process fosters independent learning and critical thinking skills.

Teen and Father

Parents can help teach their child/teen how to effectively solve problems independently by utilizing some of these simple strategies:

Help your child/teen to manage strong feelings (emotional regulation) – Feelings of frustration, sadness, anxiety, and even excitement make identifying problems and generating solutions more challenging as their capacity to think clearly is diminished. Remaining calm is a central quality of all good problem solvers!

Our bodies respond to emotions in different ways. When angry, for example, some children become quiet and withdraw, while others raise their voices, move quickly and abruptly, and even become aggressive. Helping your child/teen identify how their body feels when they first start to feel emotions is a critical first step in helping them develop emotional regulation. Once recognized, they can take steps to calm down like thinking about something else, doing another activity (coloring, playing with Legos, word searches and even math problems). Engaging in other activities helps them focus their mind away from the frustrating circumstance and allows them to regain control and reset. Once calm, you can talk with your child/teen about what happened that led to their reaction and begin thinking through possible solutions and healthy action plans.

Identifying the problem – When you observe your child/teen having difficulty encourage them to recognize and describe the external (e.g., not understanding how to proceed with a project, friend is not available to meet) and internal factors (e.g., thinking about a loss, a friend rejecting them, not being chosen for an important role on an athletic team or theatrical event) that led to their reaction.

If talking about what happened is challenging, allow them to draw out the events and then describe them to you. This will allow your child/teen to understand the problem and what factors contributed to their reaction (e.g., not understanding what to do or where to start, feeling tired or hungry, or something not happening they way they expected).

Children and teens may not perceive the problem the same way adults do.  Allowing them to describe their experience and the perceived problem in their own words will lead them to trust their observations, communication and analytical sills.  Not only is this process part of the foundation of emotional development but rests at the heart of rational thinking.

Early in their development, children my not be able to verbalize the problem.  They just know that things are not working out the way they expected and are unable to be flexible in their thinking and adjust to changing circumstances. In such cases, simply state the problem for the child. If you say things like, “So the problem is…” children will eventually understand that clearly identifying problems leads to generating solutions and increased feelings of confidence and independence.

Give your child/teen the opportunity to generate solutions on their own – While a parent’s solutions might be more effective or efficient, simply giving the child a solution to the problem would deprive them of the opportunity to learn and develop confidence in their ability to generate creative solutions.

Once your child/teen has generated some solutions on their own, ask them how what they do might impact them and others around them (consequences). Allow them to try to solve the problem on their own and encourage them to come back to you and let you know how things turned out. I often talk with the children and teens I work with about being “scientists” and observing what happens when they make these important changes. Clipboards and rating scales are often a part of this process.

Identify what is and what isn’t working – To help children and teens move from a trial and error approach to a more systematic approach to problem-solving, encourage them to think about the results of their solutions. Parents can ask open-ended questions (e,g., Did it turn out the way you expected?; I wonder what would happen if…) and make comments (e.g., You seem happier now that you had a chance to talk with them) to help them consider alternatives.

Talking with your child or teen about what they did to solve the problem helps them to establish and cause-and- effect connection in their mind.  This will lead to them successfully solving problems on their own which will, in turn, build their self-confidence.

Once this mental association is in place and they’ve experienced being an effective problem solver, they stand a better chance of using this same approach when faced with conflicts and problems in the future. Be sure to praise them when they are able to use this process independently. You acknowledging them will go along way towards solidifying these skills and remind them of your kind presence and support.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Please visit the Resources section of our website for more information on Depression, Anxiety and Disruptive Behaviors as well tips on Parenting Teens and our article on Coping With Anger Outbursts.

Please contact one of our specialty-trained Psychologists should your child or teen need help with emotional control or developing effective and healthy strategies to solve problems, 360.236.0206.  We’re here to help!

Warmest Regards,


Dr. Dave Callies

Child & Adolescent Psychologist

Gyro Psychology Services


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