Problem solving is critical to every part of our lives, both personal and professional. It is the process of identifying a problem, developing possible solution paths, and taking the appropriate course of action. Strong problem solving skills empower us to face a dilemma head-on, use already-familiar techniques to reach a desired outcome, and solve the problem with the least difficulty possible in the most effective way.

In the family setting, having good problem solving abilities makes us feel competent and hopeful and strengthens our relationships. On the other hand, a lack of problem-solving skills, can result in increased conflict and stress within the family.

To become a better problem solver, it is important to understand both the tenets and strategies of problem solving. In this first part of our two-part series on problem solving, we will cover seven basic principles of problem solving that need to be understood at the outset. In the second part, we’ll introduce you to a method for solving problems effectively.

Basic Principles of Problem Solving

  1. Problems are natural. It is not “bad” to have problems, and having problems is not a sign of “weakness.” Accepting problems as an inevitable part of life will allow you to be more open-minded and less cynical when confronted with conflicts. Seeing problems as “bad” leads to denial, avoidance, and feelings of shame or guilt, which prevents effective problem solving. Often, problems present opportunities for us to learn important things, make wonderful discoveries — and also make positive changes about ourselves.
  2. Don’t jump to solutions. It is usually not a good idea to act on the first solution to a problem that comes to mind. Think about the nature of the problem, brainstorm alternative solutions, evaluate each option, and then select the best course of action.
  3. Most problems have solutions. People sometimes feel helpless and hopeless and throw in the towel before even trying to solve a problem. This is especially common when dealing with the frustrations of parenting challenging children. Having effective problem solving skills, however, will increase your confidence, positive expectations and satisfactory results.
  4. Take responsibility. You can solve a problem only when you take responsibility for your part in it. This does not mean blaming, criticizing or “guilting” yourself. It does mean recognizing your contributions and reactions to problems and your ability to change. You can change yourself but have little or no control over others.
  5. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do. Be positive rather than negative. Having a goal and positive alternatives increases motivation and provides direction. For example, family members who constantly argue may decide to avoid each other. “We can’t talk,” they tell themselves. A more positive solution is to learn communication skills, including effective sharing and listening. “We can learn to handle our conflicts more effectively,” is a healthier approach.
  6. Solutions must be within your power and ability. You will experience failure if you use solutions beyond your power and ability. For example, parents commonly try to control their children’s behavior. You cannot make your child behave in a certain way. You can offer information, make requests and provide choices and consequences. Ultimately, your child will change only when he or she wants to.
  7. Solutions must be legal and socially acceptable. Sometimes, out of frustration and desperation, people try solutions that push the limits of what is legal and socially acceptable. For example, some parents have become neglectful or abuse in reaction to challenging children. Their lives were then complicated — and rightly so — by social services and criminal justice system investigations.


Next: The How-Tos for Effective Problem-Solving

This post is an excerpt from the book Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love. You can purchase the book here.