As the school year starts, we know that our children will face numerous challenges. School can be particularly difficult for children who have suffered from traumatic events, and the structure and social interactions there can be just another source of chronic stress. It is tempting to try to help our kids by laying out a blueprint that we know will make life easier for them, such as studying hard, being respectful, and staying organized. Our blueprints, however, can end up being just another way that our kids fail. It’s much better for them if we concentrate on helping them develop problem solving skills that will enable them to find their own solutions to their challenges.
Benefits of Problem-Solving Skills
Children who have suffered traumatic experiences often develop the sense that they are merely passive spectators to their own lives. From their perspective, adults usually make decisions without their input, sometimes victimize them, and always seem to try to control their lives. Then adults give them standards that are hard to meet, and the only guidance they give are meaningless words like “attitude” or “respect.” It’s no wonder that at some point kids stop listening to us or start rebelling.
Helping our kids learn problem-solving skills can help them break that cycle and move past the usual impacts of trauma. Children who succeed in finding constructive solutions to their problems develop a sense of control over their lives. They also start seeing some success from their efforts, and that success encourages them to keep trying. As the National Child Traumatic Stress Network noted in its Skills for Psychological Recovery guide, “Having a systematic way to solve problems can help survivors address problems more effectively, regain a sense of control, and increase their self-efficacy.” When we teach our kids not just a solution to a challenge, but how to find their own solutions, they learn critical thinking skills that they can apply to other areas of their lives. Those skills, in turn, increase our kids’ resilience, and self-confidence will be one of the natural consequences.
Key Strategies for Problem-Solving
There are numerous ways to help our kids learn how to solve problems, and every child benefits from a different learning process. Young children will have different brain development than older children. However, there are some important principles that we can apply to each of our unique situations and help our kids develop resilience.
• Define the Problem in Small Chunks. The first step of solving any problem is to define the difficult situation as clearly as we can. It’s also important to teach our kids how to break down the problem into manageable chunks. It’s easy for them to think that the problem is, for example, “I’m just bad at math” or “everybody hates me.” Those are big and complex problems that seem insurmountable. But if you can help them break that big problem down into smaller projects, then you can work on each part one at a time. Don’t worry that you won’t be able to solve the entire problem. The point here is to establish a process for dealing with each part of a problem one at a time.
Help your child concentrate on a specific problem that he or she can control. “Everyone hates me” is not a problem within a child's ability to solve. But maybe part of the problem is that our child has anger issues or doesn’t know how to be polite or tries to use insults as humor. Any of those social problems is both manageable and within our child’s control. Similarly, you can break “I’m not good at math” into which parts of the subject your child needs to spend more time on learning and practicing.
• Set The Goal. Once you’ve helped your child identify a manageable problem, decide on a realistic goal. If the problem is that your child is failing math, then perfect test scores may be unrealistic. But they could aim to start passing their tests. Similarly, a child with no friends isn’t realistically going to win a popularity contest. But he or she could aim to find one friend in a shared activity or a friendly person in each of several classes. You also may need to shorten the time line for your kids. Conquering anger is a big long-term goal. For most kids, avoiding temper tantrums the next time they are provoked may be enough of a win for now.
• Brainstorm Solutions. Once you and your child have set a goal, brainstorm ways to reach the goal. The key to brainstorming is to come up with as many options as possible and don’t evaluate them yet. For me, that latter point always is the hardest. I tend to look at each solution as I come up with it and decide if it's a good idea before I add it to the list. It can be particularly hard for our kids, especially if they are worried that we won’t like one of their solutions. Be very intentional about listing all possible solutions without passing judgment yet. The goal here is to come up with as many solutions, even silly-sounding ones, as possible. Helping our kids become creative problem solvers requires that we encourage them to think outside the box as much as possible during this step.
• Discuss the Pros and Cons of Each Solution. This final step is when we go through each possible solution and discuss the advantages and disadvantages. Also, help them evaluate whether they can be consistent with a given solution. Can they practice it on a daily basis, or at least most of the time? It's not essential that they always follow through (see below about embracing mistakes), but the solution needs to be one that they can follow consistently.
It’s very important that we let our kids lead this part of the process. It’s tempting to give them the benefit of our wisdom and life experiences. But giving them a solution won’t help them exercise their problem-solving “muscles.” They also won’t follow through on a solution that they aren’t vested in. So step back and encourage your kids to take the lead in figuring out the best way for them to meet the goal they have identified.
Principles for Problem-Solving
Throughout the process above, it’s very important that we follow some basic principles to keep the focus on letting our kids take the lead. It’s all too easy to give our opinion about the best possible solution for them. If we use the following principles, though, it will be easier for us to help them develop their own skills instead of just doing what they are told.
• Start With Skills Your Child Has Already Learned. All too often, our kids see their own problems as completely beyond their abilities to solve. Other times, they are afraid to try new things. If we can start by helping them realize how well they have done already, then the next step won’t look so daunting. It’s always more helpful to say, “You’ve already learned this, and it’s only a small step to learning that,” than to say, “You need to learn this entirely new way of approaching your life.” Reminding them of their successes will boost their self-confidence about their ability to solve similar problems in the future.
• Work With Their Interest Levels. Sometimes our children will have no interest in learning a new skill or solving a particular problem. When that happens, we need to pivot to something that they do find interesting. We don’t gain anything by forcing them into a particular solution. If they aren’t interested, they simply won’t succeed. Our goal isn’t to solve a problem of our choosing, but to help our kids develop their own skill set. The first requirement for that process is to follow their interests, not our own.
• Use Questions, Not Explanations. Lectures are always our first temptation, because it’s so much easier to impart what we’ve already learned. Unfortunately, our kids don’t learn any more from our lectures than we learned from our parents’ monologues. Our children will learn far more, and much faster, if we bounce the problem back to them with questions. That process will help them think through the issue, learn how to analyze, and develop a vocabulary for finding a solution. Collaborative problem solving will have far richer benefits than any series of lectures.
• Get Professional Help. Some problems will require help from mental health professionals to get our kids to a place where they can work on higher order skills. For example, kids with hyperactivity disorder or conduct disorder may need therapy or medication to be able to focus enough to work on communication skills or social skills. If your kids have complex trauma or challenging behaviors, find a good therapist with an evidence-based approach who can help you develop trauma-informed practices suited to your particular child.
• Promote Healthy Risk-Taking. Encourage your child to go outside their comfort zone in ways that don’t pose any danger if they don’t succeed. For example, if they try out for a school play and don’t get a part, not succeeding won’t pose any physical danger and usually not any psychological trauma. Certainly, failure is uncomfortable and creates all sorts of negative emotions. But it's an inevitable part of moving forward. If our kids avoid all risk of failure, they start thinking of themselves as not strong enough to face challenges. If we help them push themselves outside their comfort zone, they learn that failure is not a moral flaw, but another way of learning. A good example of that growth mindset is Thomas Edison, who failed with multiple inventions. In response to a question about his failure, he once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times — I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
• Embrace Mistakes. A close corollary to healthy risk-taking is to embrace our kids' mistakes. If we focus mostly on whether or not they succeed, we can instill a pass/fail mindset that keeps our kids from trying new solutions. We need to embrace their - and our mistakes - as part of the process of learning. Not all solutions will lead in a straight line to our kids’ goals. Sometimes they will take two steps forward and one step back. We need to keep our focus on the fact that they are trying and are moving in the right direction. Discuss mistakes that you’ve made and how you learned from them. Help them understand that mistakes are an inevitable part of the process, and the only way to avoid mistakes is to stay in place.
• Build an Emotional Connection. Finally, keep your focus on building your relationship with your child. Children need a strong support system before they will feel safe trying different ways of coping and learning new skills. Find ways to reassure them that, even if they never meet the goals they set for themselves, you still love and care for them. The point of the skills-building process is for them to learn what they need to learn, not to please you or give you the right answer.
Problem solving skills are among the most important abilities we can help our kids learn. Children who have suffered adverse childhood experiences need to learn how to be resilient and how to move forward from their experiences. Helping them find their own solutions to their challenges is the best way to give them a foundation for having an emotionally healthy future.