How Parents Can Use Problem-Solving Power


Problem-solving power refers to a group of parent influence strategies designed to activate, within children or teenagers, a problem-solving or solution-focused mental state. This strategy is best illustrated with an example:

Sonya is busy at her laptop reading an online newspaper while her 6-year-old son plays in the living room. She notices her son working hard on a small puzzle and after he gets a piece into place, she says: “How did you figure out where that piece went?” Her son looks up and replies, “I don’t know. It just fit there.”

This interaction may seem trivial, but the mother, whether she knows it or not, is using problem-solving power to encourage her son to reflect on how he’s getting his puzzle together. This particular approach is based on constructive or solution-focused principles. The underlying belief is that the more we can get our children thinking about how to solve problems, the better they’ll become at problem-solving.  Further we are helping them become more optimistic, focusing on solutions and successes instead of pessimistically focusing on failures and problems.

The polar opposite of problem-solving power occurs when parents, in frustration, ask their child something like, “What’s wrong with you?” or after a sequence of misbehavior, “What were you thinking!?” When parents ask these problem-oriented questions, it encourages children to focus on their failures, what’s wrong with them, or on their negative thoughts and behaviors.

Just like solution-focused therapy, problem-solving power is indirect and leading (Murphy, 2008; Steenbarger, 2004). It’s also something we have to train ourselves to do.  For some reason, it seems more natural to ignore our children when they are behaving, and to give them attention when they are not.  Many parents remain silent and even detached while children play quietly (savoring the silence). This, of course, is the equivalent of ignoring good behavior, which we know from our basic behavioral principles is a great way to extinguish behavior.

The most common forms of problem-solving power are listed in the “How to Listen so Parents will Talk book (see: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1351053762&sr=1-5)

Here’s one example of a problem-solving power strategy.

Child-Generated Rules

As noted in the “How to Listen. . .” book, parent-generated family rules are an example of direct power. In contrast, when using problem-solving power, parents try to hook their children into generating rules themselves. Interestingly, as family members discuss what they want for themselves and for the family, children often become motivated to contribute to very positive and reasonable family rules. Many authors have written about family meetings or the family council (Croake, 1983; Dreikurs, Gould, & Corsini, 1974).

Problem-solving power is an excellent way to help children reflect on and contribute to family solutions. It’s a method for helping children learn solutions and rules from the inside out—instead of the external or outside-in behavioral approach. Problem-solving power can be used liberally but sometimes parents need to take charge and solve family problems themselves. This is especially true with younger children. As family therapist Carl Whitaker once said (we’re paraphrasing), “Two-year-olds cannot take over leadership within a family unless they’re standing on the shoulders of a parent.” In the end, things go better if parents are the primary leaders in the home who not only allow their children to voice opinions, but also engage their children in the family problem-solving process.

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