You don’t have to have all the answers.
When problems are presented to us in our relationship, our initial instinct can be to fix it. When our kids come to us with an issue or when there are sibling disagreements, we often try to provide a solution. This can be because we want to help or don’t like seeing our kids upset. But even though our intent is to help, our need to provide solutions can result in:
Leaving the other person to feel like they aren’t capable.
Being blamed for a solution that backfires.
The other person might feel unheard, because they weren’t looking for a solution. They just wanted to be listened to.
Problem solving with your partner
Have you ever come home after a long day at work, you’ve been frustrated dealing with certain people there, there was a delay that you weren’t planning for, you got stuck in traffic on the way home, and it felt like everything that day went wrong? All you want to do is get home and tell your partner what a tough day you’ve had, and they respond with, “Why don’t you try doing this (insert solution here)?” Whilst some people can appreciate this approach, for a lot of couples this creates frustration. Why? Because sometimes, when we are going through our stuff, all we want is to vent and be listened to. We don’t necessarily want to have the problem solved, we just want to talk about it. A lot of the times, there isn’t an easy solution to our issue. And in order for us to get through our challenges in that moment, all that can help for the time being is to talk about it.
So next time your partner wants to talk about things try this instead:
Validate: When your partner is telling you what’s going on for them, it’s important to listen intently. You can do this by reflecting back or summarising what you’ve heard, asking open ended questions to help you understand better, or providing empathy with statements such as, “I know how tough that is for you”.
Offer support: There are different ways you can offer support, however simply asking “How can I support you in this?” is all it takes. You don’t need to offer solutions just yet.
Then ask the magic question:
“Are you interested in receiving advice or problem solving together?”
If your partner says yes, then come up with some ideas together or give them your own solutions on what you think could work. If they say no, just leave it at that. By listening intently and asking before giving advice, this will create a space where your partner can feel heard and understood.
Problem solving with your kids
Your child comes home from school and they’re upset, “Alice didn’t want to play with me and I was by myself at recess and lunch”. What’s your initial reaction? For many parents it will be to say things such as, “Why don’t you go play with Ethan instead?” or “Next time tell the teacher so they can tell Alice to play with you”. Our need to problem solve, stems from our discomfort in seeing our child hurt. This is most evident when our child hurts themselves and we automatically try to brush it off and tell them they’re okay, even if they aren’t. When this happens, it’s important to acknowledge the pain your child is in. Validating all feelings can help our children process what’s going on for them, rather than denying their experience.
Launching into problem solving, doesn’t give our child the opportunity to process their feelings about what happened. Before we can problem solve, our kids need to feel heard and understood. This can be done by using Thomas Gordon’s 6 steps of problem solving. The following steps can be used if your child has a problem such as the example above, if you are both feeling stuck on a specific issue or helping solve sibling disagreements.
Step 1: Define the problem. Allow your child to express their concerns freely. The best way to do this is through active listening, reflecting what you are hearing and summarising their thoughts. Ask questions to help you understand the issue, so you can get to the core needs of your child. If the problem involves more than one child or family member, ensure everyone has their needs listened to.
Step 2: Brainstorm solutions. You can both come up with ideas and write them all down. All ideas are important (no matter how silly they may sound).
Step 3: Evaluate solutions. Now is the time to cross off the ideas that won’t work, and discuss the ideas you are both okay with. Have an open discussion on why some ideas won’t work and why some ideas will work.
Step 4: Choose a solution. Pick the solution that you are both happy with, or get creative and select a combination of ideas. Try not to push any ideas if your child doesn’t seem 100% on board with it. Also, don’t pick a solution you’re not 100% okay with either. It needs to be a solution that works for both of you.
Step 5: Take action. What are the things you or your child can do to make the solution work?
Step 6: Check results. This is to re-evaluate the solution and to ensure the solution is working.
Through using these steps, it can help our children feel understood and it can also give them the tools to think of their own solutions. It’s important for our children to have the confidence to figure things out for themselves, and also have a sense of a collaboration when it comes to problem solving. It’s particularly important to use these skills to reduce sibling rivalry. If we don’t attend to each child’s needs, or try to problem solve too quickly, this can result in resentment over time. Furthermore, it’s important our children learn these problem solving skills early on, otherwise as they get older, they may want to turn to others to help their solve their issues even if they should be capable of doing it themselves. It's important to remember by not problem solving straight away, for our kids and in our relationship, it can open up a collaborative effort which is better for everyone in the long run.
Simperingham, G. (2022) Sibling rivalry: Helping Children develop problem solving skills, Peaceful Parent Institute. Available at: https://www.peacefulparent.com/sibling-rivalry-helping-children-develop-problem-solving-skills/ (Accessed: March 31, 2023).
When both of us own a problem: The six steps of the No-Lose Method (no date) Gordon Training International. Available at: https://www.gordontraining.com/parenting/us-problem-six-steps-no-lose-method/ (Accessed: March 31, 2023).