Matt Gade, Deseret News
This story corresponds with an article posted on Oct. 3rd, School program tackles hard task of figuring things out.
MIDVALE — Mykenzie and Porter are "hugging it out," and at first it doesn't make either very happy. The sister and brother, ages 8 and 6, were fighting until their mom told them they'd have to "hug each other until you feel the love."
So they stand there for a bit, stiff and unhappy. But sure enough, after a few minutes, they start to relax, then giggle, then they're free to go.
It's one of the strategies that Mary and Kelly Burton have developed to help their four children solve problems.
Today, it was fighting. While hugging it out is mom's and dad's solution, the kids are working through the value, too. They have figured out they can skip it by getting along. Problem solved.
Experts say one area they see children struggle most is a serious inability to solve problems — even seemingly simple ones. Many children have become dependent on mom and dad, but instead of making their lives simpler, it has become harder. Kids who turn to adults for help with everything from sibling rivalry to homework, what to wear and how to end arguments may grow into incompetent, indecisive adults. The good news is parents can learn to empower their children with strong problem-solving skills.
"It's easiest if kids learn to solve their problems all along the way," said Dr. Tim Jordan, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Chesterfield, Mo., who wrote "Sleeping Beauties, Awakened Women." "Because parents are micromanaging their kids' lives, we have young people going off to college unable to take care of themselves. They're texting home 10 times a day, unable to solve basic problems."
Mary Burton doesn't want to handicap her children by over-parenting. "We're trying to teach them to take care of things on their own before they come get mom. If someone is in trouble, come get me first. Otherwise, talk it out and try to figure out how to fix the problem."
If that doesn't work, she's ready to help her kids talk their way through strategies, she said. Even Logan, 3, is told "use your words" and work things out.
The adult Burtons regularly discuss the kids' struggles and how to handle them. Sometimes that means not helping and letting them figure things out, she said. They back each other up and strive to be consistent.
When Jill Wiseman's daughter Juliette, a high school freshman, faces a problem, the New York City mom encourages her to come up with five questions that will allow her to understand and control the situation. The questions, of course, vary. Finding five that are relevant gives the girl a chance to pause and consider.
"Problem-solving is taking a deep breath, taking a step back and deciding on the actions she needs to take. It helps her arrive at a solution," said Wiseman, who works in marketing. A homework assignment might prompt questions that address what she knows about it, her level of understanding and when it's due. She collects thoughts and sometimes materials, then tackles the task.
Psychologist Carolyn Daitch, director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit, believes many parents take over too many responsibilities for children, unsure "how much to be in their business and how much to be out. They are not letting kids figure out things on their own."
That's directly related to the anxiety and lack of confidence she deals with on a daily basis. "Ironically, parents trying to help their children can set things up so kids end up more anxious, by not letting them discover their own strengths. And children can pull their parents in. The consequences are sometimes really problematic," she said.
Picture adult kids phoning home for advice on things they should easily figure out for themselves. It happens regularly. Some have trouble even going to college, said Daitch, author of "Anxiety Disorders: The Go-to-Guide" and other books.
Solving one's own problems is learned — and crucial — behavior. Daitch said it's a good idea to tell kids who come looking for easy answers that "I have every confidence you can deal with that problem." They can be guided into the process of solving things themselves. Ask what they already know. Only then, after they've thought about it, does she offer advice.
She used to tell her son, “ ‘This is what I would do, but I am not you. It may not work for you.' The implication is that we are separate people," Daitch said. Capable people.
If problem-solving strategies are underway before age 10, Daitch said they become wired into the brain and personality. Otherwise, it's not too late to learn it, but it takes longer and may not become a natural aptitude.
Don't rush in and solve every issue right away. "One of the things that is a problem for both anxious kids and anxious adults is the belief something will be catastrophic if they make the wrong decision. Most things will not be catastrophic. And genuine disasters you usually can't prevent. I would encourage people to say something like 'That sounds like a really good solution. What is the worst thing that will happen if it doesn't go right?’ ”
That reassures children they can be less than perfect and still be OK.
Even the little ones
Developmental psychologist Nancy Buck, president and founder of Peaceful Parenting Inc. in Denver, believes children are naturals when it comes to trying to get their problems solved, but they have to learn the right way to do it. A baby cries and mom responds. Problem solved. But crying every time one wants something is not a helpful strategy as one gets older.
She values teaching children they have choices. There are biological urges children must be taught to handle responsibly and respectfully. There are psychological urges and needs, like safety and security, love and belonging, all experienced from birth to death. The trick is learning to meet needs and behave in healthy ways. Children who don't learn become adults who don't know, either.
"Our job is to get out of the way in trying to solve the problem for the child and engage in helping the child learn how to solve it," she said. "It strikes me frequently that children are usually ready to take bigger steps to independence and solve problems before their parents are ready. There is a tension between wanting them to grow up and don't grow up too soon."
Julia Cook writes children's books with crafty rhymes to help children and parents navigate tricky water, including problem solving. The Fremont, Neb., teacher-turned-counselor said children can't always see an issue from the parent's adult viewpoint. "To teach a child, you first have to enter their view of the world," she said. She has a million copies of her books in print and "mentors" parents with her characters. "With positive parenting strategies, they can help their children become lifelong problem solvers," she said.
Her book "Soda Pop Head" tackles anger control, for example: "There goes Lester, watch him fester." His dad teaches him to control his temper, with specific strategies. One of the best parts about teaching kids to work through things logically, she said, is parents need not have all the answers. Kids often find different solutions and grow new skills.
One area where parents overdo and prevent kids from solving problems is sibling squabbles. They jump in and "kids learn it's not my responsibility to resolve my fight," Jordan said. He recommends "teaching children to look at each other, to talk to each other." Sometimes parents have to guide it a bit until skills are built. Parents who get in the middle should stop.
It even applies to things like finding lost items, Jordan said. When a shoe is lost, parents run around, crazed, searching. "Instead, ask when she last saw it," he said. Questions like that or what other shoes she can wear are more helpful and help the child develop coping skills.
Children should order their own meals in restaurants and speak for themselves at the store. "Lots of parents talk for their kids. Parents have to look at the long term. If they want their kids to be confident and have a good sense of self-reliance, they have to turn things over and let the child think for himself and solve problems for himself — so when the big leap of 18 comes, it's not that big a leap. Otherwise, it's a huge leap and a lot of kids are falling flat, with mental health issues, anxiety, depression, not knowing how to solve problems. That's not opinion. Studies prove it," Jordan said.
The same thing applies to "fixing" their relationships with other people. Listen. Ask what they tried and whether it helped. What else can they do?
Parents often know these things, but jump in anyway because "it's quicker and easier" to do it for them. "You avoid the whining and meltdowns, but it weakens the kids if you don't allow them to learn problem-solving skills. As kids get older, there needs to be a shift" so they learn to take care of themselves.
Teens? Don't hover
"You have to stop solving all their problems when they're in high school," said Daitch — and much sooner than that. Parents unwilling to let their children make mistakes, try things, solve their own problems or think for themselves need to change. They have to let their children see their confidence that the child can make good decisions. "That is not to say you never should offer some suggestions. But let the child develop these very critical skills."
Her final advice is to reflect before you react. "Ask yourself if your involvement solving a child's problems is helping the child in the long run or if it's preventing her from developing necessary self-reliance needed to function independently."
Jordan knows parents who fight with their sophomores and juniors about bedtime. When a kid is 8, you might do a little negotiating, then send him to bed. A 16-year-old will soon head out into the world and needs to be prepared. It's fine to talk about sleep's importance and help them figure how much they need to be at their best. But teens can figure out their bedtime and suffer the consequences if they short-change themselves.
Kids need opportunities to "slow down and get quiet," he said. Many problems are "solved on the inside." But children don't know how to take quiet time, Jordan said. "It's hard to know how to solve your own problem if you're always busy and distracted."
"The sooner that you start asking them to solve their own problems or solve them with you, the more you help them," said Buck.
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