8 Steps to Help Your Child Learn Problem Solving Skills

This article, written by Jennifer Wendt, PhD, was originally published on TherapyChanges.com and is being shared on FindaPsychologist.org with permission from Therapy Changes.

As adults we solve problems all throughout the day, from minimal to major problems. We are called upon to make decisions and find solutions to problems occurring in our homes, jobs, relationships, health, etc. The list is endless! Many problems we fix are common and we have learned a variety of solutions to use without much thought. Problems that are novel or larger may require us to pause and actively use our problem solving skills.

One of the most exciting moments is to witness a child learning to solve his or her own problems! The moment when a child spits out a pacifier and instead of crying, she reaches out her hand to search for it and places it back in her mouth. A toddler stands up, notices his feet feel funny and then switches his shoes to be on the correct feet. An 8 year old runs upstairs to grab a jacket because the weather is colder than she thought. A 12 year old realizes he has been unkind to a peer and makes up for it by inviting him to join his friends at lunch. While doing homework, a 15 year old studies for his math test first because he felt terrible after getting a C on his last test. An 18 year old decides to not ride in a car with her friend because she is driving without a license.

Children are faced with decisions and learning opportunities every day during every stage of life. One of the best things we can do is to nurture these opportunities and encourage them to solve problems on their own. As parents, we routinely rise to our responsibilities as provider and protector of our children. It often takes a conscious effort for a parent to step back from their provider instinct and allow the child to find a solution to a problem at hand. For example, it is much easier and faster to help a child turn the sleeves of their jacket right side out then to patiently watch them struggle to figure it out on their own. Another example may be when a parent asks a high school teacher to include him in class emails regarding assignments so he can monitor his 16 year old’s progress. Although the intentions are to protect and help our children, when we solve the problem for them, we deny them the opportunity to figure it out themselves.

Here are 8 steps to help your child learn problem solving skills:


1) Encourage Creativity
Allow children and adolescents to think outside of the box and try new ideas. Encourage young children to play creatively with objects they find or plain wooden blocks, while encouraging older children to explore new ideas with their imagination.

2) Have Patience
Recognize those moments when you can spend a few extra minutes allowing a child to solve a problem on their own rather than quickly solving it for them.

3) Play Problem Solving Games
Games are for all ages and not just for young children: from hide-and-go-seek to capture the flag.

4) Model
Think out loud and let your children listen to you solve a problem. Demonstrate how you are working to find a solution.

5) Allow Them to Fail
As tough as it is, allowing your child to fail provides an amazing learning opportunity. It also provides the message that it’s ok to make mistakes.

6) Ask for Their Help
Ask your children for help making decisions or solving a problem. It’s remarkable to hear the possibilities they can come up with.

7) Propose Multiple Possibilities
Offering a variety of possible answers to solve a problem can help to get the ball rolling. It encourages a child to consider multiple options and to project possible outcomes.

8) Praise Their Efforts vs. the Result
As humans, we do not magically solve every problem the right way, nor is there one solution to a problem. Praise a child for their efforts & when there is success you can highlight the result!

“I can see how hard you are working to figure this out!”

“You really put a lot of effort into this!”

“I bet you are glad you didn’t give up. You’re determination helped you solve the problem!”

“I knew you could figure it out!”

“I can imagine how good you must feel about completing this.”

Learning to solve problems is an essential life skill. Strengthening these skills not only allows children to gain independence and self-confidence, it also primes them for success in academic learning, leadership, social relationships, athletics, finances, health, leisure skills and all other areas of life.