Helping Children Solve Their Own Problems

Focusing on Solutions Over Problems

Behavior and the study of behavior has always intrigued me. My worst grade in college was the class that interested me the most — neuroscience. While I may not be cut out to be a neuroscientist, I loved all of my classes about behavior and have thought many times about becoming a Behavior Specialist. I think of myself as a problem solver and strive to instill that same problem solving way of thinking with my students and my own children.

Whether we are explicitly teaching our kids phrases to use or unintentionally talking in their earshot, our kids are picking up on, and using, the language that they hear us say.  And no, this post is not a reminder about cleaning up your language in regards to four letter words. I blurted one out the other day on the airplane when I had both kids in the airplane bathroom and Grace dropped her toy in the toilet…We are all doing the best we can. But what I have been saying a lot more is “We are problem solvers. Let’s solve this problem.”

The truth is, we can’t shield our children from disappointment, heartache, challenges, and setbacks. The “helicopter parent” who is hovering to keep their little one protected has only been replaced by the “lawnmower parent” who goes out ahead of the child and clears the path before they even have a chance to stumble. While both parents have the best intentions, both are trying to solve life’s problems FOR the child. What happens then when mom and dad are not around? When they are at preschool? Or recess? Or college? Teaching children problem solving skills is teaching them an essential life skill.

Teaching Problem Solving Skills

One way I try to do this is by modeling these skills myself, especially in front of my children. For example, on Sunday when we got back from a trip, my husband was picking us up from the airport. He said he was outside and when I asked him how traffic was, he said it was fine. “That’s weird, I heard the parkway was closed due to a terrible accident.” He responded, “I didn’t take the parkway.” In that moment I knew, he went to the wrong airport.

While in my head I had some choice words swirling around, I instead viewed it as an opportunity to teach problem solving skills. Keener and Grace, Daddy went to the wrong airport! He’s so silly! (ha!) That is a problem because that means he isn’t here to pick us up. Good thing we are problem solvers. Mama needs to think of what we can do. Hmm… We could wait here for him, but it will be a really long time before he comes. We can do Uber car seat. We could take the metro and then maybe he could pick us up. There are many ways we could solve this problem.

Recently I have begun to intentionally model problem solving skills any time an obstacle presents itself. When appropriate, I will invite Keener to brainstorm solutions with me, and I am often amazed at the solutions that he offers.

Problem Solving Language

We first identify that we have a problem. That problem could be anything from not finding our backpack, to no swings being available at the park, to not finding our favorite stuffed animal at bedtime. All of these are problems that need solutions.

Then, we work as a team to help generate solutions. It really requires a shift in thinking to go from seeing a problem as a catastrophic event to being an opportunity to be a problem solver. And when the “problem” is that your kid did not get to use the green bowl, reflecting back on your own setbacks can help. Think about how frustrating a bad driver is — it can certainly help increase our empathy when our child is upset over something that seems small.

Finally, it helps to make Keener aware that he is a problem solver. I have been amazed at how framing/labeling Keener as a problem solver has really changed his perspective. He instantly feels empowered to find a solution that will best solve the problem. Whether that is a temporary solution, making a plan for the future (more on delayed gratification to come), or a more permanent solution, he is generally capable of choosing a solution.

You know, when Mommy had a problem the other day you helped solve it. It sounds like you are experiencing a problem right now. Let’s work together to solve this problem because Mama is a problem solver and so is Keener. Let’s think about different ways we could solve this problem.

We could _____

Maybe if we _____

What other options could we think of?

Have we had this problem before? What did we do to solve it that time?

Timing is Important

Begin the conversation about being a problem solver before the child is overcome by his emotions. I tried this with my nephew the other day when he started to get upset thinking he left his toy at home. You’re feeling upset because you left your toy at home. Let’s take a deep breath so we can be the best problem solvers. I know you are a great problem solver. OK. What can we do? Allow wait time and then begin to offer some suggestions. When we have a clear mind, we can easily solve this problem. I know you checked in your backpack but let’s check a second time. Do you want to look or do you want me to help? Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is helpful.

He ended up finding it in his backpack but for the sake of teaching him to be a problem solver, I helped him play out a different scenario. That’s awesome that you found it! Sometimes it does take looking for something twice. I have to do that all the time. But let’s pretend you looked again and it really wasn’t there. What other solutions could we have tried? After a few seconds, he said, “I could look when I get back home.” That a great idea! I think about the last place I used something to help me locate things I have misplaced. And in the meantime, you could also play with a different toy in the car. It looks like you have a few other toys you could choose.

Essentially, you are helping your child determine what options they have that are in their control. This isn’t giving them what they want but instead giving them the skills they need to solve whatever challenges come their way. By teaching them to think flexibly, generate multiple solutions to problems that arise, and choose one, you are giving them a lifelong gift.

Teaching problem solving skills has been the biggest bang for my buck so far. It captures every possible problem, no matter how big or small, and helps reframe a negative way of thinking into a positive one. Who doesn’t like to be part of the solution? Teach your child how to have that same satisfaction.


  • Invite them to be part of brainstorming solutions
  • Ask them what they did last time they had a problem
  • Inform them that there will be a problem again and they can use a similar strategy
  • Remind them that staying calm lets one think of better solutions
  • Have the child help decide which solution feels like the best
  • Focus on the solutions instead of the problem
  • Use the language “you are a problem solver” so they identify as one
  • Highlight how characters in books and movies are problem solvers

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