Problem-solving with teenagers: steps and tips

Problem-solving with teenagers: steps and tips

Why problem-solving skills are important

Everybody needs to solve problems every day. But we're not born with the skills we need to do this - we have to develop them.

When solving problems, it's good to be able to:

  • listen and think calmly
  • consider options and respect other people's opinions and needs
  • find constructive solutions, and sometimes work towards compromises.

These are skills for life - they're highly valued in both social and work situations.

When teenagers learn skills and strategies for problem-solving and sorting out conflicts by themselves, they feel better about themselves. They're more independent and better placed to make good decisions on their own.

Problem-solving: six steps

Often you can solve problems by talking and compromising.

The following six steps for problem-solving are useful when you can't find a solution. You can use them to work on most problems - both yours and your child's.

If you show your child how these work at home, he's more likely to use them with his own problems or conflicts with others. You can use the steps when you have to sort out a conflict between people, and when your child has a problem involving a difficult choice or decision.

You might like to download and use our problem-solving worksheet (PDF: 121kb) - it can help you come up with a solution together by guiding you through the process step by step.

When you're working on a problem with your child, it's a good idea to do it when everyone is calm and can think clearly - this way, your child will be more likely to want to find a solution. Arrange a time when you won't be interrupted, and thank your child for joining in to solve the problem.

1. Identify the problem

The first step in problem-solving is working out exactly what the problem is. This helps make sure you and your child understand the problem in the same way. Then put it into words that make it solvable. For example:

  • 'I noticed that the last two Saturdays when you went out, you didn't call us to let us know where you were.'
  • 'You've been using other people's things a lot without asking first.'
  • 'You've been invited to two birthday parties on the same day and you want to go to both.'
  • 'You have two big assignments due next Wednesday.'

Focus on the issue, not on the emotion or the person. For example, try to avoid saying things like, 'Why don't you remember to call when you're late? Don't you care enough to let me know?' Your child could feel attacked and get defensive, or feel frustrated because she doesn't know how to fix the problem.

You can also head off defensiveness in your child by being reassuring. Perhaps say something like, 'It's important that you go out with your friends. We just need to find a way for you to go out and for us to feel you're safe. I know we'll be able to sort it out together'.

2. Think about why it's a problem

Help your child describe what's causing the problem and where it's coming from. It might help to consider the answers to questions like these:

  • Why is this so important to you?
  • Why do you need this?
  • What do you think might happen?
  • What's the worst thing that could happen?
  • What's upsetting you?

Try to listen without arguing or debating - this is your chance to really hear what's going on with your child. Encourage him to use statements like 'I need… I want… I feel… ', and try using these phrases yourself. Be open about the reasons for your concerns, and try to keep blame out of this step.

3. Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem

Make a list of all the possible ways you could solve the problem. You're looking for a range of possibilities, both sensible and not so sensible. Try to avoid judging or debating these yet.

If your child has trouble coming up with solutions, start her off with some suggestions of your own. You could set the tone by making a crazy suggestion first - funny or extreme solutions can end up sparking more helpful options. Try to come up with at least five possible solutions together.

Write down all the possibilities.

4. Evaluate the solutions to the problem

Look at the solutions in turn, talking about the positives and negatives of each one. Consider the pros before the cons - this way, no-one will feel that their suggestions are being criticised.

After making a list of the pros and cons, cross off the options where the negatives clearly outweigh the positives. Now rate each solution from 0 (not good) to 10 (very good). This will help you sort out the most promising solutions.

The solution you choose should be one that you can put into practice and that will solve the problem.

If you haven't been able to find one that looks promising, go back to step 3 and look for some different solutions. It might help to talk to other people, like other family members, to get a fresh range of ideas.

Sometimes you might not be able to find a solution that makes you both happy. But by compromising, you should be able to find a solution you can both live with.

5. Put the solution into action

Once you've agreed on a solution, plan exactly how it will work. It can help to do this in writing, and to include the following points:

  • Who will do what?
  • When will they do it?
  • What's needed to put the solution into action?

You could also talk about when you'll meet again to look at how the solution is working.

Your child might need some role-playing or coaching to feel confident with his solution. For example, if he's going to try to resolve a fight with a friend, he might find it helpful to practise what he's going to say with you.

6. Evaluate the outcome of your problem-solving process

Once your child has put the plan into action, you need to check how it went and help her to go through the process again if she needs to.

Remember that you'll need to give the solution time to work, and note that not all solutions will work. Sometimes you'll need to try more than one solution. Part of effective problem-solving is being able to adapt when things don't go as well as expected.

Ask your child the following questions:

  • What has worked well?
  • What hasn't worked so well?
  • What could you or we do differently to make the solution work more smoothly?

If the solution hasn't worked, go back to step 1 of this problem-solving process and start again. Perhaps the problem wasn't what you thought it was, or the solutions weren't quite right.

Try to use these skills and steps when you have your own problems to solve or decisions to make. If your child sees you actively dealing with problems using this approach, he might be more likely to try it himself.

When conflict is the problem

During adolescence, you might clash with your child more often than you did in the past. You might disagree about a range of issues, especially your child's need to develop independence.

It can be hard to let go of your authority and let your child have more say in decision-making. But she needs to do this as part of her journey towards being a responsible young adult.

You can use the same problem-solving steps to handle conflict. And there are more tips in our article on managing conflict. When you use these steps for conflict, it can reduce the likelihood of future conflict.

For example
Let's imagine that you and your child are in conflict over a party at the weekend.

You want to:

  • take and pick up your child
  • check that an adult will be supervising
  • have your child home by 11 pm.

Your child wants to:

  • go with friends
  • come home in a taxi
  • come home when she's ready.

How do you reach an agreement that allows both of you to get some of what you want?

The problem-solving strategy described above can be used for these types of conflicts. You might want to download our example problem-solving worksheet (PDF doc: 185kb). We've filled it in to show how you could come up with a solution to the problem above. It follows these steps:

1. Identify the problem
Put the problem into words that make it workable. For example:

  • 'You want to go to a party with your friends and come home in a taxi.'
  • 'I'm worried there will be a lot of kids drinking at the party, and you don't know whether any adults will be present.'
  • 'When you're out, I worry about where you are and want to know you're OK. But we need to work out a way for you to be able to go out with your friends, and for me to feel comfortable that you're safe.'

2. Think about why it's a problem
Find out what's important for your child and explain what's important from your perspective. For example, you might ask, 'Why don't you want to agree on a specific time to be home?' Then listen to your child's point of view.

3. Brainstorm possible solutions
Be creative and aim for at least four solutions each. For example, you might suggest picking your child up, but he can suggest what time it will happen. Or your child might say, 'How about I share a taxi home with two friends who live nearby?'

4. Evaluate the solutions
Look at the pros and cons of each solution, starting with the pros. It might be helpful to start by crossing off any solutions that aren't acceptable to either of you. For example, you might both agree that your child taking a taxi home alone is not a good idea.

You might prefer to have some clear rules about time - for example, your child must be home by 11 pm unless otherwise negotiated.

Be prepared with a back-up plan in case something goes wrong, like if the designated driver is drunk or not ready to leave. Discuss the back-up plan with your child.

5. Put the solution into action
Once you've reached a compromise and have a plan of action, you need to make the terms of the agreement clear. It can help to do this in writing, including notes on who will do what, when and how.

6. Evaluate the outcome
After trying the solution, make time to ask yourselves whether it worked and whether the agreement was fair.

By putting time and energy into developing your child's problem-solving skills, you're sending the message that you value your child's input into decisions that affect her life. This can enhance your relationship with your child.