The Skill of Problem Exploration


Working with Your Children Instead of Against Them

puzzzle problem exploration

Learning to work with your children to solve problems will reduce the conflict that inevitably occurs when raising children and setting limits. 

Instead of begging your kids to cooperate or threatening them when they fail to, using the skill of problem exploration will provide a framework for working with them to find an acceptable resolution.

This method will:

  • help you to deal with some of these struggles,

  • help your children to feel that they can contribute to solving problems rather than seeing themselves as being the problem,

  • strengthen your relationship with them.


Before You Use the Skill of Problem Exploration

Taking time to think about the situation first will make the process of solving problems with your children more productive. These preparatory steps include:


Checking Your Attitudes toward Problems

What words, thoughts, feelings, or attitudes come to mind when you hear the word “problem?” 

You may equate problems with trouble, failure, mistakes, or blame.

Interestingly, though, some people have a very different perspective on “problems.”  They view them as challenges to overcome, opportunities for growth or change, puzzles to be solved, something they can master, and chances to connect with others as they ask for help.


Your attitudes about problems can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you believe that problems are solvable and you are capable of conquering them, there is a greater likelihood you will persist when confronted with difficulties and, therefore, a greater likelihood that you will be successful in finding solutions.

By becoming aware of how you view problems, you can change your perspective from negative to positive.


Such an optimistic view towards problems benefits your children as they:

  • gain a “can-do” attitude.

  • learn not to be afraid of problems.

  • see themselves as capable of solving problems and thus  feel better about themselves.

  • build a positive relationship with you.

With this more positive view of problems, you can now think about the specifics of the issue you want to address.
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Defining the Problem

Before you can talk to your children, you need to be objective, put boundaries around the problem, and quantify its frequency and magnitude.
You can ask yourself:

  • How often does it occur? (Occasionally? Daily? More frequently?)

  • Under what circumstances? (Is it only in certain situations or is it part of a greater problem?

  • To what extent? (Is it a minor but on-going issue or a major infringement?)

After “getting your hands” around the issues and describing it in fact-based terms, you can decide if this is a problem you want to address or one you can let go.

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Deciding if it is a Challenging Norm

Furthermore, you can decide if the situation is truly a problem or if it is a challenging norm, one that may be aggravating and frustrating for you as a parent, but typical for your children’s age.

Examples of challenging norms include:

    not sharing is common for two-year-olds all the way through age five or six;

    bathroom language of four-and five-year-olds;

    pilfering among  five-and six-year-olds;

    being moody for seven-year-olds;

    needing autonomy and privacy for adolescents.


Frequently, just understanding what behaviors are part of your children “doing their job” of growing up can allow you to relax.

You can work with your children to manage these behaviors, but it is helpful to realize that the behaviors are typical for their ages and, as your children mature, will probably go away on their own without direct intervention on your part. This is where knowledge of child development can be helpful.


Often you may decide not to address challenging norms as a problem.

You can let time resolve the behavior. 

    For example, you may find bathroom talk, which is a challenging norm for four- and five-year-olds, somewhat annoying but not bothersome enough to intercede; ignoring the behavior may be the reaction of choice. You can wait it out and knowing that eventually the bathroom talk will peter out on its own, and sometimes more quickly if you don’t react.

    Conversely, you may really dislike such talk and feel embarrassed when your kids use such words in public.  In this case, you will want to address the issue as a problem.

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Determining who Owns the Problem

You need to decide who owns the problem; that is, who is the person really bothered by a particular situation or whose needs are not being met?

You Own the Problem

When something your child is doing directly effects you in a negative way, then you own the problem, and it becomes your responsibility to do something about it.

    For example, a child who is playing ball in the living room usually has no problem with what he is doing, but you might, so you “own” that problem.


Your Child Owns the Problem

Your child owns the problem when it is something that only affects him and does not directly affect you.

    For example, when a child wants to go to a movie with a rating above his age (perhaps a PG-13 for a ten-year-old) it is really the child’s problem, not yours, especially if you have already set the limits about the types of movies he is allowed to see.

In that case, the best way that you can support your child is to listen and acknowledge his frustrations and disappointments. You do not need to explain yourself, negotiate, or get involved in a formal problem exploration process.

Unfortunately, you may take on the problems of your children because you don’t want them to feel badly or be disappointed or frustrated.  You may jump in trying to solve things for them when actually it is the responsibility of your children to solve the problem or learn to deal with it.

You empower your children when you allow them to deal with some of the difficult situations they may face, while giving your support and encouragement from the sidelines.


Both You and Your Child Own the Problem

Sometimes both you and your children own a problem when it is something that directly affects both of you in a negative way.

    For example, a child starts to scream because he is not allowed to watch more television. He has a problem because he needs to find a constructive way to entertain himself and you may have a problem if his yelling wakes your sleeping baby.


Set your Course for Addressing the Problem

You can see that by deciding first whose problem it is, you can then set a course for how to tackle the  situation.

  • If the child owns the problem, you can support him, but you don’t necessarily have to take action to make him feel better.

  • If you own the problem, then you can empower yourself with this problem exploration process to work toward an acceptable solution.

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Considering How Acceptable the Behavior Is

The last factor to consider when determining your course of action is to think about how acceptable or unacceptable a behavior is. 

Few Behaviors are Always Good or Bad

What you find annoying or unacceptable, another person might not. 

For example, you may be bothered by a child not making his bed, while your co-parent does not care.


You May Not Always be Consistent

There may be times when something feels like a problem to you and other times when it does not.

For example, if you are pressed for time, you might get frustrated at your child’s indecisiveness about what she wants to wear for school; if you have plenty of time, you might feel more relaxed about this.

Having these different reactions is alright –it is not realistic to think you can be totally consistent all the time. But you can explain to your children why you are reacting differently to the same behavior on their part.

Your Reaction Depends on the Child

Additionally, some behaviors might be acceptable to you for a child of one age while not acceptable for another child of a different age.

For example, you have finished dinner and it is time to clean up. If your toddler reaches into the left-over mashed potatoes and begins to squeeze them, you might have one reaction; if your eight-year-old does the same thing, you would probably have another reaction.


To Summarize:

Before deciding to use a problem exploration process, you need to:

  • check your attitudes toward problems,

  • clarify the situation,

  • determine whether the situation/behavior is the result of a challenging norm,

  • establish who owns  the problem,

  • decide that you cannot accept the behavior.

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Using the Problem Exploration Process

Now that you have fully gathered your information and decided that it is a problem, it is time to involve your children.

Identify and Define the Problem

Make a date.
Although you have taken time to think through the situation, this may be the first time your children have stopped to think about the issue.  Select a relatively quiet time to have a conversation with them. You can even make a date to talk.

For example: “After dinner I’d like us to take some time to talk. Will you be finished your homework by then?”


Introduce the topic in a clear and unemotional way.
“I want to talk about what happened today.”  You want to give your child an opportunity to talk about his feelings first. “Can you tell me how you feel about this situation?


Don’t rush.
Only when children feel heard and understood will they be able to consider your feelings. Know that some children may take a while to open up and express their thoughts and emotions – perhaps they aren’t clear about how they feel or maybe they need to feel “safe” before they share the more vulnerable parts of themselves.

If they are accustomed to your getting angry about this topic, they may be more hesitant to reveal their thoughts. Give them time and stay calm. You can always give them a chance to offer their insights later in the process.


Next, briefly talk about your feelings.
You need to keep this part short and clear. It is hard for children to hear a parent go on and on about his feelings, worries, anger, resentment, etc.


Summarize the discussion when you are each finished sharing your perspectives.

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Generate Possible Solutions

After you have explored the feelings and hopefully probed deeper than the initial anger, you can work to generate possible solutions. This step can be fun and creative.

    list problem exploration

  • Invite your children to work on finding a mutually acceptable solution.

  • Let them come up with the first few ideas – remember that some children will need more time than others to start thinking of ideas. Again, make sure you have the time and patience.

  • You can insert some silly options into the mix, to lighten the mood. For example, when working out who is going to set the table or when, you might suggest the family cat could do it.

  • Refrain from evaluating or commenting on any of the ideas that are generated. At this point, all ideas are welcome.

  • Write down all ideas, no matter how crazy or implausible they may be. Writing gives dignity to each contribution your children make.  This step helps them learn how to think, not what to think. It also helps them become independent and creative problem solvers.

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Evaluate Options/Pick One or Two

Now that you have your list of possible solutions, you need to work with your children to evaluate your options.

First, decide which ideas you like, which you don’t, and which you want to put into action.

You want to be careful about criticizing or putting-down the ideas you don’t like. Instead of disregarding your children’s suggestions with: “That one won’t work” describe your personal reactions: “I wouldn’t be comfortable with that because…”
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Implement and Follow Through (Make a Plan and Do It)

The next step is to implement a plan. In many ways, this is the most important step, because you are clarifying your decisions and making sure that both sides agree. 

When making a specific plan consider:

  • what steps do you have to take to get this plan in motion?

  • who will be responsible for what?

  • by when will you have it done?

It is critical to insist that your children be trustworthy and follow through on their commitments. They should think before selecting and agreeing to a solution.  Remind your children: “In our family, we keep our word.” Also important in setting up your plan is to include what the consequence will be for non-compliance.

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Evaluate the Effectiveness of the Solution

  • Set a specific time to evaluate the effectiveness of your plan.

  • You can make changes as needed.  While it would be great if your first agreement worked, you may need to refine it if either one of you is not satisfied.

Often this is the start of an on-going process that keeps you and your children working together and revisiting the issue as they grow and mature.

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In Summary

You can see that the goal of problem exploration is to establish a method for working with your children and helping them to see problems as challenges, not as something negative and destructive.

A lot of the value in problem exploration lies in the process of exploring, defining, and getting clear about the problem and also in the process of working together to come up with mutually acceptable solutions.

You can model and teach your children how to approach and solve problems with confidence.  In the end, they will learn an essential life skill that they can use as they grow into adulthood.
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Example of Using Problem Exploration

bicycle problem exploration

Eleven-year-old Connor was riding his bicycle around the block after school, but did not come home to begin his homework in thirty minutes as he had agreed he would do. He has soccer practice tonight, so time is limited. This has become a frequent scenario in his home and his mother is frustrated and angry.


Defining the Problem

Mom determines that Connor has been late four out of the last five times he was riding his bicycle after school – once by only 5 minutes and three times by 20 to 30 minutes.

The mother can now step back and ask herself “Is this still a problem that I need to address?” In this case, her answer is “Yes, it is a problem that needs to be resolved.”


Deciding if it is a Challenging Norm 

If you were to look up typical behaviors for eleven-year-olds, you would find that Connor is exhibiting many predictable traits.  In general, children of this age:

  • can often tell right from wrong but opt to do the wrong thing.
  • like to argue and prove their mother wrong.
  • have a strong conscience.
  • are more concerned with self-protection than telling the truth.
  • do not approve of cheating or stealing, but may still partake in such behaviors.

While this mother believes that some of Connor’s lateness may be the result of his developmental stage, she decides that it is still a behavior that needs to be addressed.


Determining Who Owns the Problem

The mother determines it is her problem because she is the one who is angry and upset. However, if she yells at Connor or if he runs out of time to complete his homework before practice, it may become his problem too.

Since the mom owns at least some of the problem, it is still a problem she needs to address.


Considering How Acceptable the Behavior Is

The mother decides that Connor’s coming home late is not acceptable to her.

This mother has thought about the issue. She has decided that this issue is not going to clear up on its own as a challenging norm would, that she owns at least part of the problem, and that she cannot accept the behavior.

Now it is time to involve Connor.


Identify and Define the Problem 

Connor’s mother introduces the problem exploration process:

Connor, I want to talk about what happens when you go bike riding and come home after our agreed upon time.  Can you tell me how you feel about what happens?”

Connor might say that he is having fun and hates to come home, that he needs more time to unwind after school, that he loses track of time, and that his friends are often just coming out when it is time for him to head home.  Additionally, he does not think it is fair that he has to come back in after such a long day at school.

Now it is the mother’s turn to express her feelings.  She might say that she gets worried that something bad may have happened, that she feels like she can’t trust Connor to keep his word, and that sometimes it disrupts her schedule for the rest of the night when homework time gets pushed back.

At this point, she would summarize the discussion:

“You have a hard time coming home on time, in part because you are having fun with your friends who have just come outside and in part because you want more time to unwind.  At the same time, I feel worried that something could have happened to you and frustrated because it makes the rest of our evening more difficult.”


Generate Possible Solutions 

The mother may suggest, “Let’s come up with some solutions that would fix our problem. You go first.” 

Through a series of back-and-forth brainstorming, they come up with the following list:

  • Connor gets to stay out longer.
  • Connor will ride by the house and tell Mom if he wants more time.
  • Connor will do his homework while riding his bicycle.
  • Connor completes his homework  before he can ride his bicycle.
  • Connor will go out later when his friends are out.
  • Connor gets a cell phone so he can call when he’ll be late.
  • Mom will finish any homework Connor doesn’t have time to do.

Remember, at this point all ideas are recorded, without any judgment, no matter how ridiculous.

Evaluate Options 

Connor and his mother look over their list of possible solutions and pick the following:

  • Connor will ride by the house and tell Mom if he wants more time.
  • Connor completes some of his homework before he can ride his bicycle.
  • Connor will go out later when his friends are out.


Implement and Follow Through

They decide on the following plan:

  • Connor will complete 15 minutes of homework before he rides his bicycle.
  • He can go out for 30 minutes.
  • If he wants more time, he will ride home to ask his mom if it is okay for their schedule for him to stay out for another 30 minutes.

Connor and Mom decide that if Connor does not abide by this agreement, he cannot ride his bicycle the next day.


Evaluate the Effectiveness of the Solution

Connor and Mom will evaluate the plan after one week and will make changes as needed.

For more information about problem exploration, check out the following books. Purchasing from through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso Kids Can Cooperate by Elizabeth Crary Respectful Parents, Respectful Children: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation by Sura Hart Stop Arguing With Your Kids: How to Win the Battle of Wills by Making Your Children Feel Heard by Michael Nichols

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