THE BLOG
05/31/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

How to Solve Common Family Problems

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In every family, there will be problems. No matter how positive and empathic parents have been, kids will still argue and misbehave, and ask for more than they can have. The demands of our daily lives -- and of theirs -- will inevitably create conflict and misunderstanding.

Often, there is a recurring problem. The problem may be getting ready for school in the morning or going to sleep at night. Or doing homework or fighting with siblings. Children may be demanding or disrespectful, or refuse to cooperate when asked. Over time, these common problems of daily living begin to erode the quality of our relationships with our children -- and our own pleasure in being parents.

In today's post, I will outline five essential principles to keep in mind when attempting to solve any challenging problem of daily family life.

Step 1: The first step in solving any recurring problem in the life of a child is to take a step back. Problems of family life are best solved proactively. When we are reacting to our children's behavior, we will often be reacting badly.

Therapists and parent advisors of different points of view agree on this point. All programs to help parents, whether they involve greater empathy and understanding or more consistent discipline, encourage parents to be less re-active -- and more pro-active -- in their approach to their children.

Solving children's behavior problems is a little bit like playing tennis or golf. If you're not hitting the ball well, check your grip or your stance before you decide to change your swing. We need to ask ourselves, have I been spending time engaging my child's interests? Have I been, unwittingly, too angry and critical? If he is speaking to me disrespectfully, how have I been speaking to him?

Look for causes, not just symptoms. We need to identify the daily experiences in a child's life that are sources of painful feelings. These may be frustration in learning, or frequent criticism, or bullying, or exclusion. Never assume that a child who refuses to do his homework or help with basic chores is "lazy." (I will discuss this frequent misconception in future posts.)

Then, listen to your child's grievance. Let him tell you what he believes is unfair in his life.

Step 2: Once you have identified a recurrent problematic situation and made some effort to understand its causes, the next step is to place the problem before your child. You can say, for example, "We often have a problem in the morning, when it's time to get ready, and I end up yelling at you," or "A lot of times, we have a problem when I tell you that it is time to turn off the television" or "I know you feel that we are always on your case about your schoolwork, and maybe we are. But we're worried and we need to solve this problem."

Children want to solve problems, and they want to do well. Like us, however, they may become frustrated and even feel hopeless that solutions are possible. And, like us, they may just not know what to do.

Step 3: Elicit your child's ideas. It seems almost reflexive for many parents, when faced with a child's persistent defiance or lack of cooperation, to attempt to solve this problem by imposing a "consequence" for their child's misbehavior. Although some problems may require this approach, I recommend that you first engage your child in an effort to solve the problem -- to elicit your child's ideas.

In this way, you will often be able to engage your child in a search for solutions. She will then be less absorbed in angry and defiant thoughts, less stuck in making demands or continuing the argument. She will begin to think, even if just for that moment, less about getting her way and instead about how to solve a problem, how her needs and the needs of others might be reconciled.

Once you have placed the problem before your child and asked for her ideas, give her some time. You can say, for example, "Why don't you think about it for a while? Let's talk again later, or tomorrow, and see what your ideas are."

Step 4: Develop a plan. In my experience, almost all children respond positively when I tell a family that "I have a plan" to solve a recurrent problem of family life. They may be skeptical, but they listen with interest. Deep down, they want a plan as much as we do.

Step 5: Be sure to offer appreciation and praise for every increment of your child's effort at compliance and self-control. Acknowledgment of her effort and progress is a basic principle of successful problem solving. We should also regularly, proactively, check in with children, and ask, for example, "How do you think we are doing with our morning problem?"

When we engage children in the process of solving problems, we will often be pleasantly surprised -- by their willingness to cooperate, by the reasonableness of their ideas and by the solutions we are able to achieve.