Many successful people have one trait in common – the ability to persevere and solve problems. Have you wondered how children can be more resilient, getting up on their own when they fall or walking away unscathed from an argument? Perhaps you might be thinking – they all grow out of it, and they’ll learn to be better at facing life’s challenges. We all do. But how can we help our child to acquire such important problem-solving skills?
Picture these scenarios:
Your child runs crying to you at the playground, visibly upset after someone pushed him/her.
Another gruelling math test was held and your child failed it the third time.
It was the finals of an important soccer league match and your child was in the losing team.
There was a maker project which got the students working in teams. Late into the project, one of the team members chose to abandon the project while working on an exact copycat for another team. Your child was her teammate.
In these everyday scenarios, how would your child respond? How should they solve the issues? No one is born and equipped with problem-solving skills. Every child needs someone to guide his/her emotions, perspectives and actions. As parents, as much as we yearn to be there for our children every step of the way, we must know that realistically, it is not possible. We need to step in but also learn to step out when it’s time to let go. For starters, parents and primary caregivers have to lend a hand to the kids in their daily problems until they learn how to manage and cope on their own.
Life is a journey of ups and downs. Making the right choices in response is a skill and one wrong choice may lead to negative outcomes. Good decision-making is a skill that is learnt with time and experiences. It is not a skill that is innate, and that is why children will need to learn such skills. It is highly likely that decisions made by children are often on impulse and without proper evaluation. If children are not equipped with problem-solving skills, they cannot cope when there are obstacles. As a result, they may feel unconfident and even choose avoidance instead of meeting problems head-on.
Published in the “Behaviour Research and Therapy” journal in 2010, a study on 439 clinically depressed adolescents found that children who lack problem-solving skills may be at a higher risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. In addition, the researchers found that teaching children problem-solving skills may improve mental health. Solving problems is a critical skill that helps children to thrive in the harsh realities of schooling and growing up.
This article will shed some light on how parents can encourage and develop their child’s problem-solving skills.
Kids who are younger may not be able to recognise a problem and cannot communicate exactly what they are going through or even how they feel. Our role as parents is to listen, empathise and ask the right questions if the child appears to be distressed. Identifying the problem together helps the child to understand that we have his or her back. For instance, when the young child is denied a much-coveted toy or prize, we can say, “You must be very upset that you can’t have what you wanted. Perhaps we can take a picture and play with it the next time we come or try to win it the next time.” This reassures the child that his or her unmet desires are recognised, and they may be fulfilled in future.
Remember to stay neutral and take a step back to assess the nature of the problem, its severity and whether it has been an ongoing issue. As a “team”, dissect the problem so that you can try to identify the root causes if any. This would facilitate solving the problem more thoroughly. Then, we could share about what we think while remaining objective about the problem.
After identifying and assessing the problem, sit down with your child to think of some solutions. This step is helpful in building confidence in your child to make the right decisions. If this has never been done before, your child may find it difficult to come up with solutions in the beginning.
We should hence encourage and motivate our child in suggesting some ideas, not disregard their inputs or insist we know better. Take a step back and hint at a solution if your child is unable to come up with an idea. Next, evaluate possible solutions from the list of ideas and shortlist a few to try them out. Instead, you could provide constructive feedback on why a particular solution may not work as well.
Once possible solutions have been shortlisted, work out a brief plan with your child about trying them out. This would give them the chance to plan their next steps, how they can approach the problem and whether they need more support or resources from a third party. This will help them to learn to resolve issues on their own.
Be sure to follow up after some time by checking if the solutions worked. If Plan A didn’t work, what would Plan B be? Being supportive and encouraging to your child trying to work through a problem is helpful. Solutions may not always work. Sometimes, practice makes perfect and other times, we may need to go back to the drawing board to assess the problem again. It may involve skills that require time and maturity to learn – skills such as learning to cooperate, communicate, negotiate and collaborate.
In Angela Duckworth’s famous TED talk on “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, she highlighted the importance of grit and a “growth mindset”. This idea was developed by Carol Dweck from Stanford University about the importance of effort and believing in perseverance despite failure. Developing a “growth mindset” in our children can help them conquer challenges even if they have failed previously. If there was a lost opportunity or countless failures, these are all possibilities to help encourage our child to look past failure and persevere on.
Some people liken raising children to flying a kite. We need to learn how to let go to allow the kite to soar. While we may gently tug our kite in favourable weather conditions, we must also know when the kite will not be able to fly in bad weather. Equipping children with skills that would help them for the rest of their lives would enable them to navigate the winds of change. After all, we would like our children to grow up to be adaptable, resilient and independent adults.
Give your child the chance to identify their problems and come up with their own solutions. Allow them to make mistakes and be supportive. As Albert Einstein said, “A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” We can help guide the ship in rough seas so that it can sail through even rockier seas in future. But the journey is our children’s to take.