All posts by johnsommersflanagan

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:

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.

Indirect Power

Indirect power involves a strategy or process whereby parents obtain compliance through an indirect means. In contrast to direct power, this particular strategy generally doesn’t activate rebellion and therefore power struggles are minimized. Indirect power strategies include some of the most important parenting strategies of all time, as well as a few strategies that are somewhat playful and, some might say, manipulative.

The most important indirect parenting strategy is modeling. If parents don’t want their children to swear, they should avoid swearing (at least in their children’s presence). Children are strongly inclined to model their behavior after their parents’ behavior, especially if they respect their parents. There is scientific truth in the old saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Bandura & Walters, 1963).

Modeling highlights the perpetual 24/7 aspect of parenting. If you tell your child, “Don’t lie,” but then you call in sick so you can go skiing instead of going to work, or sit home on a night when you turned down a social invitation because you were “too busy,” you’re role-modeling the opposite of what you’re preaching. In essence, you’re asking your children to do as you say, but not as you do. And we all know how well that works! Parental behavior is often closely scrutinized by children, even when they don’t let on that they’re watching.

John recalls a particularly uncomfortable situation with his younger daughter when she was four years old. As he hurried on his drive home with her beside him in a child’s seat, they were forced to stop at a railroad crossing. Frustrated, John muttered under his breath a particular four-letter word generally associated with fecal matter. Much to his horror, his sweet 4-year-old instantly picked up the beat, repeatedly letting fly with the dung word until, finally, John came up with the bright idea of correcting her by compounding his mistake: “Oh no sweetheart, you’ve got that wrong. What Daddy really said was, ‘shoot!’ Try saying that, ‘shoot.’” When his daughter finally was able to satisfactorily mutter “shoot” under her breath, John felt a mixed gratification. He had lied to his daughter to stop her from using profanity:). Clearly, this was only a marginal parenting success and one that illustrates the complex burden of parental modeling:(.

The most common forms of indirect power are listed and described in our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” They include the following:

Table 3.3 Indirect Power Strategies



Character feedback

Giving choices


Wagering, racing, and giving audience

And here’s a description of one of these indirect power strategies:

Wagering, Racing, and Giving Audience

These indirect strategies are usually playful. For example, parents might say, “I bet I can eat up my broccoli before you do” (wagering) or “Let’s race and see who can get dressed and ready to go out to the car and to school the fastest” (racing) or “I heard you’re really good at your times tables. How about if you do a set for me and I just watch and listen?” (giving audience).

To be honest, wagering, racing, and giving audience are manipulative ploys. They involve enticing children into compliance using techniques framed as fun and competitive. As a consequence, some parents don’t like these particular parenting strategies.

Nevertheless, these techniques can be useful and are often employed effectively by some parents. For example, as described previously, with children who are slow at dressing themselves, an indirect intervention might involve a competition or race:

Okay, sweetheart, let’s see who can get ready the fastest. I’ll run to my bedroom and see if I can get dressed and ready to go before you’re all dressed. I think I’m the fastest, but you might be. I don’t know. Are you ready? Ready, set, go!

The problem with this form of indirect power is not so much that it’s manipulative (almost everything is manipulative in one way or another), but that it can begin to feel manipulative to children. Consequently, although parents should use positive role-modeling whenever possible, these more playful and manipulative indirect approaches should be used only occasionally.

Grandma’s Rule: An Example of Using Direct Parenting Power and Influence

Direct power is one way parents try to have power and influence. Direct power is simple and straightforward. It involves directly informing children what to do and what not to do. It’s bossy and often manipulative but not necessarily tyrannical. As we all know, it’s possible to have a benevolent boss, someone to look up to as a respected authority. Alternatively, many of us know or have experienced a tyrannical boss. For many reasons, well-established through parenting research and child development, when direct power is needed, parents should enact that power in a wise and benevolent manner—rather than behaving as a controlling tyrant (Baumrind, 1975). A parent we once worked with articulated this practical principle when she told us her philosophy of parenting. She said, “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.”

Direct power can be communicated through voice tone (that extremely firm or even snarling voice), voice loudness (a raised level, even yelling), body posture (standing and pointing), eye contact and facial expression (a hard stare, serious face, or even an unpleasant grimace), and other physical means. Spanking, hitting, and all physical approaches to discipline are classic efforts at exerting direct power. Similarly, when parents use threatening words or verbal abuse with their child, usually they’re trying—somewhat desperately—to directly influence their child’s emotional state or behavior.  When things get desperate, verbal efforts to influence children often end up sounding rather absurd. For example, we’ve heard parents saying things like,

  • “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
  • “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”

Obviously, yelling, hitting, and verbal abuse are threatening and extreme means of trying to exert parental influence or control and we don’t advice using these approaches.

Grandma’s Rule is an example of a reasonable and relatively effective direct power and influence parenting strategy. This strategy is a language-based intervention that clearly spells out the sequence of desired or required behaviors and optional or reinforcing behaviors. Grandma’s Rule always follows a “When you/then you” format. For example, a parent might say to her child, “When you finish the dishes, then you can call your friends.” Using Grandma’s Rule is a clear and concise way to communicate parental authority by letting the child know exactly what he or she needs to do before engaging in a fun and positively rewarding activity. If you’d like to experience how Grandma’s Rule feels, try this out on yourself: “When you finish reading this blog, then you can check your Facebook account.”

When working with parents who sometimes use ambiguous language with their children, or with parents who are ambivalent about exerting authority, Grandma’s Rule can be very helpful. In particular, parents may need to be coached on avoiding the use of if instead of when.  For example, parents who say, “If you do the dishes, then you can call your friends,” convey a sense of uncertainty as to whether their children really will be doing the dishes. Children who have oppositional or defiant tendencies will quickly latch onto the if and begin a debate over whether that behavior will ever occur. Grandma’s Rule always involves using “When you/then you” language.

In the next day or two I’ll be posting a short description of Indirect Power and Influence strategies. All of this material is excerpted or adapted from our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” You can find it on Amazon at:

How Parents Influence Children: A Parenting Influence Model

* * *  In this short excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk” we describe a model with four strategies for how parents influence their children. Over the next several days I will include more information about each of these four parental influence strategies. * * *

Although some individuals might suggest that adults always try to control children—and children (especially adolescents) always try to rebel against generational pressure and oppression—we see the world of adult–child relationships through a much rosier lens. In particular, we believe most adults don’t really want to control and oppress children and that most children, though striving for individuation and independence, are not automatically rebellious or oppositional. Instead, we believe most adults want to shape or influence children’s (especially their children’s) thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and most children feel the need to rebel only when their parents slip into an excessively controlling style.

As we move forward with this explanation of the parent influence model (PIM), we’re aware that some professionals and some parents may have negative reactions to the idea of using power or being an authority figure. Nevertheless, our rationale for describing a parent influence model is based on the reality of parent–child power differences. In this regard, we’re in agreement with the sentiment in the following passage by Grosshans & Burton (2008), who stated:

When you become a parent, you take on not only an unprecedented responsibility, but you are immediately imbued with an unparalleled dimension of power in relationship to another human being. Whether you philosophically agree with it, want it, or feel prepared or equipped to exercise it, when you are a parent, you’ve got it. In fact, you are the most powerful person the world to your child, because she depends on you for everything. (p. 17)

Let’s face the reality that parents automatically have power—and focus on how they can use it appropriately, humanely, and respectfully.

Based on the PIM, parents have four power sources (Wood’s, 1996, original social power labels are in parentheses):

1. Direct power (coercion)

2. Problem-solving power (expertness)

3. Indirect power (manipulation)

4. Relationship power (likability)

These power sources are presented in an order such that, if you were to overlay a triangle on this list, direct power would be at the tip and relationship power at the base. This is because relationship power functions as the foundation for all other power and influence approaches or strategies. Tomorrow I’ll begin discussing how parents can use and abuse “direct power” which lies at the tip of the PIM pyramid and work my way down in coming days.

Upcoming Event: Strategies for Influencing Children

Missoula Forum For Children And Youth To Host Parenting Discussion

Oct. 08, 2012


University of Montana counseling Associate Professor John Sommers-Flanagan will lead a community conversation titled “Parents are the No. 1 Influence” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, on the third floor of the University Center. The discussion is presented by the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth in partnership with Missoula Underage Substance Abuse Prevention.

The first of a three-part Community Conversation Series, the discussion will address the importance of parents’ impact on youth. Research indicates that parents are the primary influence on children, including when youth make choices about engaging in risk behavior or experimenting with substance abuse.

“Parenting is a wonderful gift, but it also can be difficult at times,” said Brandee Tyree, MUSAP coordinator with the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth. “John Sommers-Flanagan will give concrete tips on how to influence your child’s behavior for the best. As a community we can support each other as parents, which in return supports our youth in making healthy decisions.”

The event is sponsored by UM, Missoula Indian Center, the Missoulian, St. Patrick Hospital Foundation and Montana Marketing Group. It is free and open to the public, and refreshments will be provided.

The Missoula Forum for Children and Youth and MUSAP work to support and enhance prevention efforts in the community.

For more information call Tyree at 406-721-3000 ext. 1021 or email