One of the most difficult things as a parent is to watch our child struggle. Who doesn’t want to step in and intervene when problems arise?
At the same time, letting children solve their own problems is crucial. Children who learn to face (and overcome) challenges gain confidence, resilience and self-esteem. They believe they can tackle whatever comes their way.
So how do we balance our desire to help with not helping too much? The key is making certain your child feels supported in the process.
“When children have the support to get up and try again, they learn they can survive adversity and come out okay.”
-Dr. Laura Markham
Teaching your child to solve problems can be challenging, but it’s well worth the effort. These 5 simple sstrategies will help your child solve problems independently, and feel safe and supported at the same time!
1. Encourage Free Play
Playing offers your child tons of problem-solving opportunities. Finding a lost toy, choosing someone to play with, deciding who gets to go first--these are all moments of practice.
Unstructured play, or free play, is especially impactful. Without set guidelines, children have the freedom to create, discover, and establish their own rules.
While free play has been on the decline in recent years, there’s still plenty you can do to encourage it in your child.
Consider these fun, unstructured ideas:
- Creative play (crafting, drawing, painting, sewing)
- Imaginative games (dress-up, building forts, pretending to be a superhero)
- Outdoor play (star gazing, bug collecting, climbing playground equipment)
Scale back on structured activities to make time for it and don’t be afraid to let your child get bored! Boredom makes space for creativity and imagination. When your child complains there’s nothing to do, recognize it as a source of inspiration.
2. Teach flexible thinking
Many children struggle with rigid, inflexible thinking. If your child has difficulty going with the flow, taking another’s perspective, or shifting their attention, they are not alone!
Building cognitive flexibility begins early. When children know there are choices and options from a young age, they begin to see all the possibilities.
You can start with:
- changing the daily routine in a small way (“Do you want to take a bath before or after dinner?”)
- using “flexible” language (“Let’s see if we can try this another way”)
- brainstorm options for as many things as possible (pizza toppings, ways to travel, ice cream flavors, or paint colors)
- decide on a new rule for a favorite family game
Children learn best when they see us thinking flexibly too. The next time something doesn’t go as planned, voice your thought process (“I planned to make burgers tonight, but I forgot to get the ingredients. I’ll be flexible and order pizza instead!”)
3. Celebrate failure
Children who fear making mistakes or failing are less likely to tackle their own problems. They would rather not try than risk embarrassment, or a negative outcome.
As parents, it’s critical our definition of success includes failure and mistakes. Talk with your child about how mistakes prime our brains for learning. Give them an opportunity to boast about their mistakes and how they overcame them (and do the same with yours)!
Other ways to embrace failure include:
- Encourage your child to do something challenging everyday
- Ask, “How did you fail today? What did you learn from it?”
- Give them a high-five when they make a mistake (“Yeah! You’re learning!”)
- Listen to The Big Life Kids Podcast episode, How to Turn Failures into Robots which also coordinates with the Big Life Journal-2nd Edition
Finally, discuss how failing often happens when we work hard and practice a lot. After all, we can’t fail if we don’t put ourselves out there and try!
“If you haven’t yet experienced some measure of failure in whatever you’re passionate about, you might not be trying as hard as you need to be in order to experience the success you’re chasing.”
-Jill Winger, parenting writer
4. Don’t rush in
It’s easy to fall into the trap of fixing our child’s problems. After all, shielding them from struggle is a natural urge. And sometimes it’s just so much easier to do it ourselves.
-Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure
But intervening too quickly robs our child of the chance to gain confidence in their abilities. It can also make the problem seem much bigger than it is.
The next time you’re tempted to immediately solve your child’s issue, choose a different strategy. Often, they just need to hear the message they’re capable. Statements like, “That’s a problem you can solve” are a good place to start.
- Encouraging your child to “Try 3 Before Me” (choosing any 3 of the following options: asking a friend, looking around to see what others are doing, stopping and thinking, coming back to the problem later)
- Asking the following questions: “If you HAD to solve this all by yourself, what would you do? Who could you ask for help if it didn’t work out?”
- Say, “I can’t wait to see how you solve this!” or “I’m excited to see what you come up with!”
- Ask, “What have you already tried?” and praise their attempts
It’s also key to differentiate between “kid problems” and “adult problems.” Make a list with your child of issues a parent should always help solve: when someone’s hurt, in danger, or there’s a safety issue.
5. Practice mindfulness
“Problem solving isn’t about overthinking something to figure it out. It’s about being present with what is, knowing that what you need to solve the problem will come forward from within.”
It’s easy for children (and adults) to get lost in a problem, or try and “think” our way out. And sitting with uncomfortable feelings is difficult for everyone.
Mindfulness practice helps us accept what is--without adding to it, or trying to escape. When we pause, we’re less likely to react in ways that create an even bigger problem (like yelling or using unkind words).
Simple ways to practice include:
- Take a listening walk together and count the sounds you hear (or find every color of the rainbow)
- Read stories like "My Magic Breath" by Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor, "I Am Peace" by Susan Verde, and "A Little Peaceful Spot" by Diane Alber and discuss how mindfulness helps each character solve their problems
- Praise your child for pausing or taking a deep breath before reacting to a challenge
Looking for fun and creative mindfulness activities? Take a look at our Gratitude & Mindfulness Kit which includes the popular My Mindfulness Bingo and Mindful Brain Breaks printables.
Modeling mindfulness for your child is also key. The next time you face a problem, calmly verbalize your feelings about it. Point out how you’re pausing before responding to an upsetting work email, unkind comment from a friend, or any other challenge that arises.