The Problem - Solving Formula By: Carol the Coach

Parenting is tough. It can be difficult to watch your child struggle with a problem with a friend, peer, or teacher. You want to fix it for them or come up with just the right thing to do to make the pain go away. Parents have the tendency to want to solve the problem but solving the problem or taking over for the child is absolutely the worst thing that you can do. As a family therapist, I encourage parents to break down the process of problem solving into 4 basic steps that will help the child come up with his or her own solutions. State the Problem When a child comes to you and presents a problem some situation you ask the child state the problem in one sentence. This helps them to not get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. How do you feel? Next, you ask them to identify how they feel about the problem. You help them by telling them that all of their feelings fall under the umbrella of 5 famous (primary) feelings. With small children I make it easier and ask them to identify them by the following:

Mad Sad Glad Afraid Lonely

Since the first three rhymes, kids can easily remember the “famous five feelings”.

Explain to your children that any emotion can be reduced to any of these “famous five feelings”. The difficult task is getting them to pick the predominant feeling. Oftentimes they complain that they feel several feelings at one time. Tell them to pick the feeling that bothers them the most.

Brainstorm Solutions

The next step is to teach your child to come up with a variety of solutions that might be helpful in working towards solving the problem. Teach them that any solution is a possibility and then list them on paper or keep reviewing the many choices.


It is important to teach a child that they will need to wait for a specific amount of time after executing the plan. Just as in life, we often have to continue to use the solution for a period of time before we see lasting results. Explore with your child how long he/she would like to use the approach before deciding if it needs to be changed.

Now let’s look at an example:

1. Tommy comes home from school and says that his friend John won’t play at recess with him.

2. You ask him how he is feeling, and he says he is upset. You remind him that he has to pick one of the famous five feelings and you repeat them. He clarifies that he feels sad because now he has no one to play with.

3. Now you brainstorm and ask him what he can do to solve the problem?

He tells you he can play with someone else or share his feelings with John or play a game of t-ball with the group or ask his recess monitor for help.

4. You ask Tommy to pick a choice (strategy) and he decides that he would like to see if John would come over and play and have pizza. You agree and then you encourage Tommy to ask John 3-4 times to do things with him and if after the 4th time John still remains noncommittal then it is time to pick another choice.

These are important problem-solving skills that are invaluable for life. You are teaching your child how to deal with relationships and feelings in real time.

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