Parenting with a PhD: Solving Problems as a Family

By Kristen Berthiaume:

On a daily basis, your family encounters dozens of problems – from what to wear, to what to eat, to whose turn it is to clean out the litter box.  Most problems are easily addressed with a little discussion or you pulling rank and making a decision for everyone.  However, sometimes problems come along that require a little more thought and this is where a Family Problem-Solving Approach can be helpful.  When one of you or the family as a whole is facing a big issue – bullying at school, jitters about an upcoming move, problems with a co-worker, sibling rivalry – consider holding a family meeting to go through the following steps together.  Your kids will benefit from learning how to solve problems systematically and will appreciate knowing that grown-ups have trouble knowing how to handle situations sometimes, too.  Hold each other accountable to the solutions you come up with and keep track of the outcomes.

Stop, Calm Down, and Think!  If tensions run high with the problem in question, choose a time to talk when everyone is calm and can talk rationally.  Sit down as a group, preferably with a white board and dry erase markers handy.  You’ll want to take notes on your progress as you go.  Let everyone know that if the discussion becomes too heated, you’ll have to table it for another time (and follow through on this warning, if needed!)

Say the Problem and How You Feel.  Do your best to state the problem as factually and simply as possible.  Try to avoid assigning any blame.  Then, talk about how the problem makes you all feel.  A simple sentence like this works: “The problem we’re having there is a lot of fighting over which T.V. show to watch after school.  I feel frustrated to hear you fight.”  Then, ask other family members how they are feeling about the issue.

Set a Positive Goal.  This isn’t a solution – it’s what outcome you want to reach and it should be as fair as possible to everyone involved.  In the above example, you might set the goal of getting along during T.V. time.

Think of LOTS of Solutions.  This is the fun step because anything goes.  Ask each family member to contribute one or two possible solutions to the problem.  Solutions may be great or they may be terrible but keep them all at this stage.  It’s really important to write down the solutions family members suggest so you don’t forget any in the next step.  To keep things from getting out of hand, limit yourselves to no more than 10 possible solutions.  Here’s an example:

Devise a schedule for who gets to pick the T.V. show
My sister has to watch what I want to watch
Give away the T.V. (HA!)
Restrict T.V. to the weekends
Let whoever turns on the T.V. first decide
Sell my brother
Everyone has to agree on the show

Think Ahead to the Consequences.  In this step, you’ll discuss the potential consequences, positive or negative, for each solution.  Adding a “+” next to solutions for every positive consequence and a “-“ for every negative is a nice visual way to keep track.  Be aware that many solutions will have both positive and negative potential consequences, which is O.K.  Solutions can have as many positive and/or negative consequences as you can come up with (or have time for).  Your Step #5 might look something like this:

Devise a schedule for who gets to pick the T.V. show:
+ (This will be fair and everyone gets a turn)
+ (This will reduce fighting)
– (I might not get to watch my favorite show)
– (My brother might not follow the schedule)

My sister has to watch what I want to watch:
+ (I’ll always get to watch my favorite shows)
– (It’s not fair to my sister)
– (It won’t reduce fighting)

Continue for each solution (Hint: “Sell my brother” should have several negatives).

Go Ahead and Try the Best Plan!
Pick the solution that seems to have the best outcomes for everyone.  Make sure you also choose a few back-up solutions in case the first one doesn’t work.  That way, you’ll have a fall-back plan and won’t get flustered trying to think on your feet.

Happy Problem-Solving!
About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates ( She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her five-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

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