When parents tell us problem-solving didn’t “work,” we often find one of two situations. In the first situation, problem solving is a great idea, and the parent can make a few adjustments to make the process more attractive to the child. In the second situation, problem solving is not the appropriate tool.
Let’s look at the first situation, where we can make some tweaks and have an outcome that is satisfying to all involved.
- Troubleshooting problem solving
It will not go well if you try to problem solve when the mood is wrong — the child is too frustrated and angry, or the parent is too frustrated or angry (or both!). Sometimes you can problem solve successfully in the moment, but often it is better to wait until emotions have cooled and you have a peaceful moment.
Once you find that moment be sure not to rush through the MOST important step — the first step of acknowledging feelings. If your child is having epic meltdowns every time she needs a bath, choose a calm time, far away from the bathroom, to say, “Boy, you really HATE taking a bath. You even hate THINKING about taking a bath. I bet if it was up to you, bath tubs would be outlawed. Houses would be built without them!” If your child starts sticking her fingers in her ears, you can acknowledge, “You don’t even like to TALK about baths. Let’s talk about cats instead. They don’t take baths. They just lick themselves clean.”
This may be as far as you get the first time you bring it up. If you’ve had a bad history around talking about baths, you may need to be patient, so your daughter starts to trust that she’s not going to be pressured.
Maybe the next time you bring up the bath issue, you can get a little further. “Some people like baths, and some people hate them! I wonder what it is about a bath that you hate…” (Notice that you are not asking her directly; you are inviting her to share this information with you if she is ready.)
One mom mentioned that her daughter gets red and sore if she goes too long between baths. That can certainly make a kid not want to take a bath — it probably hurts! “Oh, it hurts when you sit in the warm water… You don’t like that! That can make a person wish bath tubs were never invented!”
Now let’s consider the second situation, where problem solving is not the right tool
- Limit setting
Sometimes parents try to use problem solving, when the real issue is limit setting. The parent is struggling to figure out where the limit should be.
Let’s take a quick look at the issue of screen time. A parent might decide, I don’t want to limit screens entirely — there are some valuable uses, and I think my 4 year old should be able to watch a movie or play a game now and then. But I also don’t want to let her use screens whenever she wants; I’m convinced that wouldn’t be healthy for her brain development. Science and medicine can only get me so far — there are no studies that will tell me exactly how many minutes a day are OK, but based on my general understanding I’m going to decide that I’ll let her watch one hour a day on weekdays, and two on weekends so that the family can watch a movie together. But my child wants to watch ALL THE TIME.
This is a problem, in the sense that my kid wants to be glued to the screen and I can’t allow that because I feel responsible for her healthy development.
I wouldn’t say, “We have a problem — you want to watch another show, and I don’t want you to watch too much TV. What should we do?” That would be asking my preschooler to help me set a difficult limit. Instead I might give her information and offer a choice say, “You want to watch more TV, and you’ve already watched for an hour. What else can you do now? Would you like to make play doh out of flour and salt? Or do you want to put on some music and dance in the kitchen while I make dinner?”
She may fight you on this, especially if she is used to arguing and getting more screen time. And then you can acknowledge her feelings. “It’s a bummer. You wish you could watch videos all day long and that it would be good for you! I’m putting the ipad away for now. Let me know when you’re ready to come in the kitchen and do an activity.”
One of the problem solving failures that was mentioned on Facebook was a conflict over sugar consumption. This is another situation where problem solving is not the right tool, and the real issue is limit setting. The conflict here was that a 4-year-old (let’s call her Lily) wanted to eat a lot of sugar and her parents wanted to set a healthy limit. We can’t expect a 4-year-old to set her own limit on something that is scientifically proven to be addictive, such as screen time, or sugar, any more than we would expect that same 4-year-old to set a limit on how close to the highway she is allowed to play, if you want to look at an even more extreme example involving health.
It is no surprise that Lily rejects “problem-solving” if the idea is to create a limit that she does not want in the first place! It’s the parent’s responsibility to figure out what the limit should be. The parent does not need to consult the child to see if the child wants a limit. Not everything should be a negotiation. In fact if the parent is unclear about what the limits should be, that can create endless conflict, because the kid will keep pushing to see if she can get that one more piece of candy.
Once the parents are clear, they can give information and offer their daughter choices: “Do you want to have your ice cream for dessert after dinner, or do you want to have it earlier in the day, for a snack? The limit on ice cream is one bowl a day. A little sugar is good for your body, but too much sugar isn’t healthy.” (Keep the explanation short.)
Lily can also decide what else to eat when she craves something sweet – perhaps a trip to the produce section is in order so she can experiment with different fruits if she is so inclined. Perhaps she and her parents will experiment with cooking — baking their own bread, inventing their own yogurt fruit smoothies — creating recipes that are healthy to eat and tasty too. These are some of the ways to empower children around the issues of food while protecting their health.
We realize that it is difficult to navigate this issue when you are in a culture that is not aligned with your values and beliefs. It is very stressful for parents to have their child in daily social situations where other children are eating limitless sweets while trying to hold the line on healthy nutrition. It is extra challenging to decide what your own limits are when you’re in an environment that is not supportive, and to communicate them clearly and consistently to your child. Your child may very well feel frustrated and upset, and see an unfairness in this limit. In crafting the limit it may be necessary to make some compromises. For example, when the child is in school and all the students are given cookies, most parents wouldn’t want their kid to be put in a corner with a carrot stick. That would be too much for a 4-year-old to bear. But when they are at home they can establish their own food culture, and hopefully add some joy. It’s nicer to be told what you CAN have than what you can’t. Getting your child involved in shopping and cooking and choosing meals (from healthy choices) and even growing some veggies in a garden (when weather permits) are some of the ways to achieve this lofty goal.
If you’ve handled the sugar issue differently in the past — if you’ve said No more cookies and your child has begged or screamed and you’ve given in and handed your child the begged-for cookie — you can expect a lot of resistance to your new system. It may take your child a while to believe that you mean what you say. They’re going to use all their strategies — kicking, screaming, begging, negotiating — because these have worked in the past. It may very well get worse before it gets better. You can respond by acknowledging feelings, giving choices, or removing yourself from attack. You can remind yourself that this too shall pass. Take heart — you’re acting in the best interest of your child.