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problem solving

  • How to reduce conflict
  • Nine steps to solving problems
  • Increasing the chances of success

Increased arguing between parents and children is very common as children enter the teenage years. As adolescents seek more say in what they do, it is almost inevitable that families will encounter issues that cause friction and disagreement.

The way conflict is handled in families is important. Approaching problems by trying to force a teenager to accept your solution leaves them feeling unhappy, bullied, unimportant and uncooperative. On the other hand, giving in and accepting a solution that you are not happy with does not work either, as you are likely to be left feeling dissatisfied. Another unsatisfactory approach involves avoiding the issue altogether. Doing nothing delays finding acceptable solutions to problems; meanwhile family members continue to feel upset or angry.

One of the more effective ways to manage conflict is an approach referred to as 'Problem Solving'. If you have found yourself going round in circles, not getting anywhere in arguments with your adolescent, you might find this approach helpful.

Problem Solving is a way of finding a constructive solution to a problem. It can be used to solve an individual's problem (e.g., how to make friends at school) or to solve a problem between two people. By using Problem Solving you are more likely to achieve an acceptable outcome, while helping your teenager learn the important life skills of negotiation, compromise and responsible decision making.

There are nine steps to follow.

Step 1 - Is there a problem?
The first step is to decide if a problem exists. A disagreement is a sure sign that two people have a problem. However, not all problems are as obvious as this; there may be something causing annoyance, irritation, or discomfort, but nobody has put their finger on what needs to be dealt with. To find the problem, people have to ask themselves why am I feeling this way? What is it that is irritating or causing concern?

Moreover, it is not uncommon for people to have a difference of opinion about whether a problem exists. Getting someone to help problem solve is not easy if they aren't personally bothered by the situation or don't believe there is a problem. For example, a teenager is unlikely to think that playing their music loudly is a problem-after all, it's only a problem for mum or dad! They may need an incentive to put effort into solving a problem like this; pointing out how parental unhappiness with the situation might eventually become a problem for them (e.g., moving the stereo into the garage) might be all that is needed. Look for ways that you can encourage the general attitude, "if one of us has a problem, then we all have a problem".


Step 2 - Use good timing
Whilst it is good to solve problems when they arise, arriving at constructive solutions in the heat of the moment can sometimes be difficult. Good timing means arranging a time to talk when everyone is calm, has enough time, and is relaxed and
comfortable. Try to reduce interruptions and keep the discussion brief, no longer than one hour. If things become heated, take a break and come back when everyone is calm again.


Step 3 - What is the problem?
The next step is to define the problem. It is important to be as clear and specific as possible at this stage. Describing a problem in vague terms makes it difficult to know where to start or how to solve it. For example, 'Having a party at our house will be a nightmare', is not as easy to solve as, 'I am worried that it will be difficult to stop alcohol and drugs being brought into our home by other kids at your party'. A good definition describes the problem in terms of what is happening, how often it is happening and who is involved. Alternatively, try phrasing the issue as a question. For example, 'Can Mary go to an unsupervised party and stay till after midnight?'
There are two things you can do to make this step go smoothly: First, focus on the issue rather than the person. For example, the issue is that 'the school bag is being left on the lounge room floor every school day', rather than, 'Sally is lazy, disorganised or inconsiderate.' The second example is too vague-how do you solve a problem called 'lazy'? It also involves a personal criticism that is likely to end in argument. Sally is much more likely to cooperate if the problem is put to her in a neutral non-blaming way, as in the first example.

Second, when raising an issue with your teenager, it can be helpful to acknowledge your role or contribution to the problem. For example: "I know it hasn't helped that I have been on your back about this for some time, but I would like us to work out a way of you getting ready for school in the morning without me hassling you all the time". This approach is less likely to make your adolescent feel blamed or held totally responsible for the problem. As a result, they are more likely to participate in the problem solving.


Step 4 - What are the interests?
This next step involves being clear about what is important to each of you. Asking questions like the following can help clarify each person's position.

  • Why is that so important?
  • Why do you want/need that?
  • Why are you concerned/worried/afraid about that?
  • Why don't you want/need that?
  • What would be so awful about that?

Just listen to the answers; don't debate them. The aim is for both of you to have a clear understanding of what you each want to get out of the situation. For example, the interests of an adolescent who wants to go on a sleepover may include, "My friend is counting on me coming. He'll be upset if I don't go". The parent's interests might include, "I need to know you are safe". You know that people are expressing interests, rather than just arguments, when they start with "I need...", "I want...", "I am concerned (worried...) that...", "I am afraid that..."


Step 5 - Brainstorm solutions
Now start writing down all the possible solutions you can come up with. Take turns to suggest ideas and accept everything at this point, even silly or outrageous suggestions. This is a good time to lighten the mood by having some fun, and some ideas that might seem silly at first turn out to have some value or stimulate someone else to think of something new. Try to get as many ideas as you can and don't discuss them yet; immediately criticising or discounting a suggested solution stalls the problem solving process, gets in the way of finding new ideas and can hurt people's feelings. The aim at this point is quantity rather than quality: the more the better. Ideally try to find eight to ten ideas.


Step 6 - Evaluate the solutions
Once you've run out of ideas, the next step is to evaluate each solution. First, go over the list and cross off any ideas that everyone agrees are not practical or obviously won't work. If one of you thinks there is merit in an idea, leave it on the list for now. Next, list the potential advantages and disadvantages for each remaining solution. Always start by finding possible advantages. People are more likely to feel included and listened to if everyone makes an effort to find something positive about their suggestion. When no one can think of any more advantages, move to disadvantages. Keep this brief and don't get too bogged down on any one solution. Then, discard any suggestions where the disadvantages clearly outweigh the advantages.


Step 7 - Choose a solution
Now, with the shorter list, everyone works towards selecting the best option or combination of options. Rate each option from '1' (not very good) to '10' (very good) to help identify where there is agreement, or where options could be removed or combined. Selecting the best option may require compromise from all family members. It is better to aim for a solution that everyone can live with rather than expecting to find one that gives everyone exactly what they want. The solution has to be practical and must actually solve the problem. Some solutions, while not perfect, may be worth a try.

If you can't find a solution at this point, return to the previous step, or begin looking for different solutions, perhaps by asking other people for ideas or by getting more information on the issue.


Step 8 - Give it a go
Turn the agreed solution into a concrete plan that says exactly what all parties to the agreement will do, when they will do it, where they will do it, and what will happen if the agreement is not followed by either party. It is a good idea to write down your agreement to avoid disputes later on. At this time you also need to decide how you will monitor your agreement to keep track of whether it is working, and when you will review the agreement.


Step 9 - Review the agreement
There may be hiccups or obstacles along the way, so you need to give an agreement time to work. Usually one to two weeks is enough. Then discuss the plan together to decide whether the agreement is working. Ask yourselves what has worked well, what hasn't worked so well, and what could you differently that might make the solution work more smoothly.

If the agreement is working, then you should all be happier with the new situation. However, if the situation has not improved, ask yourselves whether the agreement was truly fair? Did everyone give and take? Were rules and responsibilities clearly understood by everyone? Were consequences for breaking the agreement used and were they appropriate? At this stage, it might simply mean that you have to find what is getting in the way of the solution working, and fix it. You may find that you need to start the problem solving process again to find a better solution.


Here are some tips for making Problem Solving work for you.

Choose the right problems to work on
Problem solving works best on problems that have more than two possible solutions. For example, a parent's concern about a day trip to the city could be addressed with this technique because there is a range of things that could be done to help ensure the teenager's safety (e.g., setting a time to be home, carrying a mobile phone, checking in at least once, having a specific plan for the day, etc). If the problem involves making a choice between two clear-cut options, such as whether to stay in school or to leave school, problem solving may not be as helpful. In these instances decisions are best made after weighing up the pros and cons, and the short- and long-term implications of each option. While it pays to take an adolescent's views into account, parents are going to have a major say in important decisions that effect their children's lives.


Explain the idea of Problem Solving to your teenager
Before you start using Problem Solving, you need to say why you want to use it, what is going to happen and what is expected from everyone. You might explain that the way disagreements are being handled now does not seem to be working. Introduce the new approach by saying that it takes everyone's views into account, and ensures the things that are important for both of you are properly considered. You may also want to let them know that this is something new for you too.


Be prepared for a range of reactions
Acknowledge and accept any reservations your teenager might have, but gently insist that you will be giving it a go. Afterall, what do they have to lose? Most adolescents want to have a say in the things that affect them, and this is a good way of letting them do it! If your adolescent still refuses to cooperate, then simply inform them that you will have to make up your own mind about what to do, and then set a rule that you expect to be followed. Let them know that the situation can change as soon as they are willing to participate in a conversation to try and find a solution to the problem that suits you both.


Be genuine
Problem solving will not work if you see it simply as a way of getting what you want. You must be genuinely willing to take your adolescent's views and interests into account. There is no harm in starting out with some ideas, but it is a mistake to try to use the problem solving process as a way of forcing your solution onto your teenager. It won't take your teenager long to work out that Problem Solving is just another way of you trying to get what you want without giving them a real say.


Here are some ideas on how to make the most out of what you have learned from this sheet.

  • Think about your current situation. Can this strategy be used to address any issues, actions or behaviours occurring at present? If so, have a go at problem solving and use the checklist below to review how you went with each step.
  • After doing this, think about what you might do to improve and set yourself a goal for next time. The most useful kind of goal states what you will do, when you will do it, and how you will do it. For example, 'The next time I do problem solving, I will organise a time with Gemma when we are both available for at least an hour and I will unplug the phone so we won't be interrupted'.


Barkly, R. A, Edwards, G. H., & Robin, A. (1999). Defiant teens: A clinician's manual for assessment and family intervention. New York: The Guilford Press.
Forgatch, M., & Patterson, G. (1989). Parents and adolescents living together, part 2: Family problem solving. Eugene: Castalia Publishing Company.
Pearson, K.L., & Love, A.W., (1999). Adolescents' value systems, preferred resolution strategies, and conflict with parents . Australian Journal of Psychology, 51, (2), 63-70.
Robin, A. L., & Foster, S. L. (1989) . Negotiating parent adolescent conflict: A behavioral-family systems approach. New York: The Guilford Press.
Sanders M. R., Markie-Dadds, C., and Turner, K. M. T. (1998). Practitioner's Manual for Enhanced Triple P. Brisbane, Australia: Families International Publishing.
Weinhaus, E., Friedman, K., & Stagoll, B. (1991). Stop struggling with your teenager. Melbourne, Australia: McPhee Gribble.
Wertheim, E., Love, A., Littlefield, L. & Peck, C. (1992). I Win You Win. Australia: Penguin


Problem solving steps

How did I go?

Did I choose to address an appropriate problem?


Did I arrange a good time to deal with this?


Did we define the problem well enough?


Did we identify everyone's interests?


Did we brainstorm solutions?


Was each solution evaluated well?


Did we choose the solution we thought was best?


Did we develop a good agreement?


Did we review the agreement on the planned date?





My Goal(s);