Please remember that you signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement before being granted access to this content. You have my permission to reprint this content for your personal use only. If you want to reprint or distribute this to others, please complete & submit a reprint request form. Thank you!– Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.




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We usually experience some problems with our house that are frustrating but need no repair. All we can do is vent our frustration, “I wish we had more room.” Other times, there are problems we need to solve, “That darned sink is clogged up again!” If we simply do the first thing that comes to mind, we might grab a hammer and start banging out our frustration. A better approach is to look at the different options and decide which is the best plan to resolve the problem.

Likewise, people are sometimes frustrated or aggravated about a problem and simply need to vent, “First this happened, then that . . .” There isn’t anything they need to do about the problem, they just want to be heard and have their feelings understood. Other times, people need to do something about their problem. The first idea that comes to mind might be irrational or poorly thought out. It can be helpful to look at the possible options and decide the best plan for responding to the problem. In these cases, the Problem-Solving Toolset is most useful.



When we use the Problem-Solving Toolset, we don’t solve problems for our children. We help children look at different ways they can solve their own problems. The problem-solving process is a universal decision-making method we can apply to any type of problem. This process begins with the first step of the F-A-X Listening process that we learned in Chapter 7:

Step  B1.   Focus  on  feelings.

Invite people to share their feelings about the problem. Listen carefully and let them know you heard and understood them. The most common mistake is to rush this step. We stop at this step when people simply need to vent.

The last two steps, Ask helpful questions and X-amine possible options, require logical thinking. In these steps, we help people correct mistaken beliefs, consider the possible solutions and make a final decision. This chapter teaches these last two steps. In it we consider several important points:

Step  B2.   Ask  helpful  questions.

    • There is a difference between helpful and unhelpful questions.
    • We can ask a series of questions that lead people to a conclusion or point that we want them to consider—without offering advice or shutting down communication. 

Step  B3.  X-amine  possible  solutions.

    • There is a basic problem-solving process we can use in all types of relationships and problems.
    • We can apply this problem-solving process to all types of Child problems.

Flowing  through  the  steps  of  F-A-X  Listening.

  • There are specific times when we stop at a step or move to the next step.
  • We can shift gears between the listening steps and between the Child Problem Toolbox and other tools, depending on the child’s needs or the situation.

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We can ask helpful questions if  we have first acknowledged feelings or if the questions clarify the other person’s feelings, thoughts, or beliefs. Once people have worked through their feelings, we can also ask helpful questions to examine different perceptions of the problem or as a bridge to problem solving. Only move to problem solving when the person with the problem seems ready to think logically about solutions.



Helpful questions are a bridge between listening and problem solving, because they help us accomplish each goal of the 1-2-3 problem-solving process we learned in the last chapter. Helpful questions can help the listener and talker (person with the problem) clarify feelings and meanings, reveal inaccurate beliefs, and examine options—all without taking over the problem. 


Asking questions at the listening step is the riskiest, because we may want to ask probing questions about facts. Questions at this step should only relate to feelings. Once people understand their feelings, they still might be confused, however, about why the problem happened. This shift to logical thinking is a sign to move to the next step. Here, we use questions to help people gain new insights by looking at the problem from different perspectives. Some questions are more helpful than others.


Unhelpful  Questions

Unhelpful questions usually have yes or no answers or shut down communication. We especially want to avoid questions that involve any of the following communication barriers.

    • Questions that analyze, criticize, or judge, because people feel defensive. “Why do you feel that way?” “I don’t know!” “Why did you do that?” “Because I felt like it!”
    • Asking too many questions, prying, or “giving the third degree,” because we usually get non-answers. “So, how did it go last night?” “Okay.” “Did you have a good time?” “Yeah.” “Where did you go?” “Around.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” 


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Many parents have had these exchanges with their children (especially teens). Children use vague responses to protect their privacy, to avoid criticism, or when they simply don’t feel like talking.

Some parents think they aren’t being good parents if they don’t ask their children questions. If their children don’t come home and immediately spill out a long detailed story, parents often feel impatient and could make one of the following inaccurate assumptions:

  • “If I don’t ask them, they’ll never tell me what is going on in their lives.” This is not true. Usually people talk more when they can volunteer information and aren’t  forced  to talk.
  • “If I don’t ask questions, they’ll think I don’t care.” If we listen, they’ll know we care.
  • “They must be hiding something.” Wanting privacy is different than covering up something bad.

 A Personal Story. My son is a very private person. When he started attending school, I was naturally curious about what he was doing. If I asked him what he did in school, he’d say “Nothing” and “I dunno.” I tried simply saying, “Hi! It’s great to have you home. Did you have a good day?” If he didn’t volunteer information, I’d drop the issue. But he still wasn’t sharing much. Finally, I discovered several options that worked well.

I said, “I’m really curious about what you learn in school and how your teachers teach things. I know you don’t always feel like talking right after school. I can understand that. Will you tell me more about school at bedtime?” He said “Yes” and sometimes did, but sometimes weeks would go by and he had not told me a thing.

One day, I said, “There are times when I am so curious about your day that I have a hard time waiting until you feel like talking. Can we make a deal for those days? If I hold up three fingers will you tell me three things you did that day if I promise not to ask any more questions?” He agreed. The first time, he said, “I rode the bus, ate lunch, and had recess.” When I asked what happened during those activities, he said, “The same thing that happens every day, nothing new.” So I amended the agreement. Now three fingers meant “any three things besides lunch or recess and one specific thing about each.” I kept my agreement not to use the three-finger signal very often and he told me more specific information. I still didn’t get information every day, but it was a great improvement. By junior high, he readily shared specific information about school and his social life. He knew I wouldn’t overreact or judge his friends. Occasionally, I had concerns, but I asked questions that didn’t put him on the defensive and helped him consider my concerns, without giving him a lecture.


Helpful  Questions

Helpful questions invite more feelings or information. People can’t simply answer yes or no. “What” and “how” questions develop thinking and judgment skills. “Why” question are only appropriate if they are totally void of judgment and express a sincere desire to understand the child. Here are some examples of helpful questions:

    “You look (feeling). What happened?”       “What do you think caused that to happen?”
    “How did you feel?”       “What did you think at the time?”
    “Could you give me an example of . . . ?”
    “What did you learn from that?”
    “What do you mean when you say.  . ?” 
    “Is there anything else bothering you?”

We must have a respectful tone of voice that says “I really want to know” or “I’m not angry” when we ask these questions. If our tone of voice is intimidating or disrespectful at all, it doesn’t matter what words we use—people will close their emotional doors.


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Give Information

While clarifying the problem and understanding why it happened, offering information or pearls of wisdom can be helpful, if we avoid lecturing or shifting the focus to us. When we give information, timing is everything. We want to wait until people have had a chance to share their feelings. If they seem confused or ask “Why?” we know they are open to the information. Our purpose in sharing information is not to play the one-upmanship game, “Well I went through something even worse than that!” Our purpose is to express empathy and understanding, “I’ve been there. This is what I did and what I learned from my decision (positive or negative).” Keep it brief and quickly shift the focus back to them, “Is that how you feel? What do you think you might do?”

We can also give information that explains other people’s behavior. Use general words to describe people’s behavior, rather than the person’s name, which could sound like we are taking sides or judging the person. For example, instead of saying “(Sister’s name) is too young to know how to share,” explain, “Two-year-olds still don’t know how to share. Your sister’s learning, but it might take her awhile to share as well as you do.” Remember to keep it brief—these are small pearls of wisdom, not giant rocks. Just plant the seed of an idea, don’t try to grow the whole plant at once. Here are examples of common behaviors children might not understand and how to explain them.

     Bullies: “Sometimes people are mean because they don’t know how to use words when they are angry.” “Some people try to get what they want by being mean or feel important if other people are scared of them.
    Cliqués“Some people need to be part of a group before they believe others like them.” “Some groups make others feel left out so they can feel that their group is special and important.”


Keep  the  Ball  in  the  Other  Person’s  Court

It is difficult to “keep the ball in the other person’s court” when we have a concern, opinion, or idea we want to share. If we don’t, it can easily turn into a lecture or sound like advice. It’s also difficult, but important, to hold children accountable for their problems even when they aren’t taking responsibility for them. The most skillful way to use helpful questions is to walk people through the logical thought process that leads them to our point, without actually telling them what to do. Our questions help them realize and choose, on their own, to do what we would have told them to do. Because they think of the idea on their own, they act on it. If we told them to do it, we could easily get into a power struggle.

A Graduate’s Story. It was time for Robert, (age 11) to get ready for a softball game but he was still watching TV. In the past I’d remind him and try to motivate him, but he usually says I’m nagging, argues, and we get into a power struggle. I wanted to help him realize on his own what he needed to do.

Mom:    What time is it?
Robert: I dunno. About five, I guess.
Mom: What do you have going on tonight?
Robert: Umm. Oh yeah, my softball game.
Mom: What time is your game? (I already knew the answer.)
Robert: Six o’clock.
Mom: When do you plan to get ready?
Robert: After this show.
Mom: (I knew that wasn’t enough time.) Will that give you enough time to eat?
Robert: (He thought.) No, I guess not. I’ll just skip dinner.
Mom: (I wasn’t crazy about that solution.) Will you have enough energy to last all seven innings?


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Robert: Probably not. I guess I’d better start getting ready now.
Relieved inside, I pleasantly said, “Good idea.” I knew he could figure it out himself; he just needed a little guidance without pushing.

Here, the mother had to say more sentences than if she were reminding and nagging her son, but she knew that approach didn’t work and was tired of him depending on her to remind him of his responsibilities. She wisely spent her time and energy using open-ended questions to lead her son through the logic that helped him realize her point. Because he decided on his own, it made more of an impression than her lectures, which he would have tuned out and resisted. It also gave him experience in remembering a commitment, which will help him in the future.


Build  a  Bridge  to  Problem  Solving

There are times when both parties understand what happened and why, but the remaining issue is how the person can resolve the problem. When we reach this phase and are still trying to use reflective listening statements or clarifying questions, we often feel like we’ve reached a block. At this point, we want to ask one of the following questions that lead to problem solving:

    “Would you like to think of some ideas for dealing with that problem?”
    “So what do you think you can do about this?”



If people seem ready to discuss solutions or start offering ideas on their own, begin the five-step problem-solving process:

a.  Brainstorm ideas.
b.  Evaluate each idea.
c.  Choose a solution.
d.  Make a plan.
e.  Commit to a trial period.

In the Child Problem Toolbox, we learn one-on-one problem solving, when another person has a problem that doesn’t directly affect us. Later, in the sibling section, we learn how to use this process to mediate conflicts between children, siblings or peers. In the Parent Problem Toolbox, we add a few steps to account for our part of the problem. In the Family Council Toolset, we use problem solving to resolve conflicts and make decisions that affect the entire family. 

Problem-solving sessions include the people the problem affects and those people must all agree on a solution.

Let’s learn the general steps, then we’ll apply them to several types of Child problems.

a.  Brainstorm  Ideas 

Once we ask a bridging question to start problem solving, we allow others to suggest as many ideas as they can think of. Ask, “What else?” until they can’t think of any more ideas. Remember these important points when brainstorming.

All ideas are okay. During brainstorming, don’t evaluate or judge ideas. Allow all ideas, even if they sound bad, silly, or stupid. There are several important reasons to do this.


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  • Ideas get the creative juices flowing.
  • People are rarely serious about acting on irrational ideas, but the fantasy is a final way to vent.
  • If we criticize or judge people’s suggestions, they are less likely to offer more suggestions. These other suggestions are usually the better ideas.
  • A bad idea can contain the seed of a good idea. If we allow all ideas, we might see (at the next step) that there is some value in an idea that we were first tempted to throw out.

Write down the ideas whenever possible. Older children can write down the ideas themselves. Writing down ideas serves several important purposes:

  • Children feel their contributions are important when someone takes the time to actually write them down. It encourages them to share more ideas.
  • It is easier to look at all the options, instead of trying to remember them.
  • Children learn a valuable tool for sorting through their feelings, thoughts, and ideas.

Get as many ideas from the other person as possible. Keep your suggestions to a minimum so children don’t always depend on you to solve their problems. If children cannot generate ideas (they may not have much practice thinking for themselves) allow a few seconds of silence before offering your ideas. Present your idea as a suggestion, not advice. For example, “Could you . . . ?” “What about . . . ?” “Have you considered . . . ?”

Whenever you are tempted to give an idea, turn your statement into a question that will help the other person think of your idea.

For each idea, ask “What would happen if you (whatever the idea is)?” Help children consider the possible effects of inappropriate or unhelpful ideas, which also teaches children to think before they act. We need to be careful giving  our opinion of their ideas—we don’t want to label the ideas good or bad. Instead, we want to acknowledge their feelings and ask questions that help them consider the possible effects. For example, “You are so angry with him, I can see how it might feel good to bop him in the nose! But what do you think would happen if you did that?” If you get no response, “Do you think it would help the problem or make him more angry?” A question can lead people to the points we want them to consider if we offer clues in the question. For example, “If you hit him, would you be doing the same thing he did to you? If it was wrong for him to do that, is it wrong for you to do it?” Judgments, lectures and preaching close the door on communication. If children figure out the answers themselves, they are more likely to use the information to avoid or resolve problems in the future.


b.  Evaluate  Each  Idea 


c.  Choose  a  Solution

After evaluating the ideas and eliminating some, look at the ideas that remain. Ask, “Which idea do you think is your best option?” We want to be careful not to push our favorite idea. The person (or people) affected by the problem needs to choose or agree to the solution. Take a broad view on choosing solutions—there are always choices; even doing nothing is an option! Even if their choice doesn’t seem best, the insight children gain from the experience teaches them important lessons.


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d.  Make  a  Plan

Discuss the specifics of their solution, asking who, when, where, and how questions. Ask them what they plan to say and how they can say it. Teach children effective communication skills. Role playing the solution is helpful to teach effective body language. Ask, “What’s the worst that could happen,” then plan for it. If they know how to handle the worst, anything less is manageable, too.


e.  Commit  to  a  Trial  Period

Once children have a plan, get a commitment from them to try it for a specific time period. This leaves the door open to discuss unsuccessful attempts to use the plan. We want children to learn that no single solution is the only  possible way to solve a problem. They can always adjust their plan later, once they see where the flaws are. Children are more likely to try solutions if they know there are other ideas to try later.

A Personal Story. As a creative problem-solving coach (which I described in Chapter 6, Independence Toolset), I cannot offer any suggestions or advice that might directly affect my team’s decision. I must rely on questions to guide and support them through the problem-solving process.

There are many times we spend the entire practice time solving one problem. Do I get tired and frustrated? Yes. Do I get a headache? Yes. Am I excited when the children solve a problem on their own? Yes. Is it worth the time and effort? Yes! Even if they don’t make perfect props or make mistakes along the way, it is okay. The only thing that counts is that they do everything on their own—and learn first-hand lessons in the process. Since I’ve been a coach, I notice I wait longer before offering suggestions to my own children and ask more questions to help them plan their own solutions.



When we are unsure when to move from one F-A-X step to the next, we simply look at the clues the speaker gives us. We can ask ourselves certain questions at each step.

Step B1.   Focus on feelings. Is the person still expressing emotion?

  • If the answer is “yes,” continue using warmth, empathy, and listening skills.
  • If the answer is “no,” move onto the next step.

Step B2. Ask clarifying questions. Is the person talking about facts, thoughts or beliefs? Is the person confused about what happened or why it happened? Are the perceptions inaccurate or unhealthy?

  • If the answer is “yes,” use open-ended or leading questions and give information.
  • If the answer is “no,” move to the next step.

Step B3. X-amine possible options. Is the person talking about solutions or ideas? Is the person considering unhealthy goals or options?

  • If the answer is “yes,” do problem solving to set healthy goals and get commitments.
  • If the answer is “no,” you may need to return to a previous step if the person is still emotional or talking about feelings (B1) or is expressing beliefs or confusion (B2).

While we generally follow the F-A-X, 1-2-3 steps in order, we might shift between the skills to respond to people’s comments. For example, if we are discussing options and people share feelings, we temporarily shift to our listening skills (B1) to show we understand what they said. Then we can ask a helpful question (B2) to help them resolve the feeling or reconsider their options (B3). Remember the Universal Blueprint’s rule: At whatever step we are on, we can always use tools from previous steps.


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  A Personal Story. Several weeks after Chris started junior high, he came home upset.




I failed my reading test today.




(with surprise) You did?




We were just starting to take a test and the kid next to me said something to me. I told him to be quiet. The teacher heard me and gave us both an automatic F.




Did you explain you were telling him to be quiet?




It wouldn’t matter, we just get in worse trouble if we say anything.




Oh? (I paused, letting my mind process the situation.) I guess I can see why. Can you imagine if teachers listened to every child’s reasons?




Yeah, we’d never get to the test.




(with a smile) Can you imagine some of the excuses they’d hear? (He nodded.) So what did you learn?




Not to sit next to that kid again!




(Since he suggested a solution, I moved to problem solving.) So what can you do the next time someone tries to talk to you? Can you just say Shh?




(Tears welled up in his eyes and he raised his voice.) That’s what I did! I gave him a dirty look, did this (he put his finger to his lips) and said, “Shh!”




(He was upset again, so I moved back to focusing on feelings.) I bet it was discouraging to get in trouble when you were trying to avoid getting in trouble! (He nodded. I went back to problem solving.) So if you can’t even say “Shh,” what can you do?




(He thought before he answered.) Just ignore him, I guess.




And  not  even  look  at  him  or  make  a  sound,  huh?  (He  agreed.  I  ended  with  a  bit  of encouragement.) Most of us have made the same mistake, but we usually only make it once—‘cause it’s a hard lesson to learn.




Yeah, really.



We can always use the F-A-X process to respond to Child problems. There are certain points we want to remember, however, when dealing with children of certain ages or certain types of Child problems. This section details some of these important points. 


Young Children

Give young children time to think of ideas—don’t rush them. They haven’t had much practice. If they can’t think of any ideas, combine the brainstorming and evaluating steps by saying, “What would happen if you . . . ?” Start with one idea. Use an abbreviated format with young children by saying only one sentence at each step: “You didn’t like it when Bryan took your truck. You wish he would ask you first, huh? What do you think you could do?” If they don’t offer any ideas, continue, “Could you try saying, ‘Bryan, ask me first’? Are you willing to try that?” (Teach young children the exact words to say, instead of giving vague suggestions like, “Use words.”)

With young children, writing ideas has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the child. Most children like us to record their ideas. It’s like writing a gift list and they become more involved. Young children with short attention spans might lose interest. Some children even get upset when we write their ideas (especially the irrational ones) because they think we are carving it in stone. They don’t understand it is just one idea of many. Try writing ideas and see how children react. If we get a negative reaction, wait until they are a little older and try again. We don’t want to give up the idea, though. There are tremendous benefits to teaching children this process. If they learn to write down their ideas, it will be a process they can use on their own in the future.


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Older  Children

The problem-solving process can move in spurts or extend over weeks. Older children and internal problem solvers usually want to solve their problems on their own at their own pace. Give them space. If they share a problem, just acknowledge their feelings. They will probably feel better, disengage, and go within again. Just take the process at their pace.

Avoid offering suggestions to teens. They are usually quite capable of solving their own problems, if we give them some time and encouragement. If we have an idea or see a possible problem with an idea, we use helpful questions to help them realize the point on their own.


Sibling/Peer  Mediation

When more than one child is involved in a problem, our role is to be an objective middle-person, not a referee who takes sides. Our goal is to involve each child in the problem-solving process. We will explore sibling conflicts in greater depth later in this chapter. If you have an only child, that child still interacts with other children and may experience similar conflicts. As you read the sibling section, substitute the word peer wherever you see sibling.


Problem  Solving  “On  the  Run”

We can use the abbreviated format of problem solving or mediation mentioned above in the “Young Children” section when conflicts involve any of the following factors:

  • It is a minor problem.
  • Children have short attention spans.
  • The problem does not occur often.
  • We don’t have enough time to do thorough problem solving. (Don’t use this factor as an excuse to skip  problem solving, just postpone it.) Problem solving and mediation usually save us time in the future, because children learn how to work out problems on their own.


If you would like an outline to follow or a worksheet to write ideas on, use the “Problem-Solving Worksheet” on page 205. You can use it for Child problems, mediation between two people, C/P problems, or family councils. Here are directions for its use.

  1. Feelings and Perceptions. Write the person’s feelings and perception of the problem—almost exactly as the person states them. If it is a Child problem, write only the child’s feelings. If you are mediating, write each person’s feelings. If it is a C/P problem, write your feelings as “Person #2.”
  2. Summarize the problem. Once we’ve listened to the description of the problem and the person’s feelings, we want to sum up the problem in our words. Check the accuracy with the other person first, which will help identify the “core of the onion.”
  3. Options. Write all the ideas that are mentioned during brainstorming.
  4. Comments (+ or –). Evaluate the positive and negative points of each idea.
  5. Plan. Decide the details of the plan. Role play or teach skills so the child can put the plan in action.
  6. Next time it happens. If this is a Child problem, have the child select a backup plan. If the problem is a C/P problem or it affects the family, decide the consequence of breaking the agreement. (Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset,” details specific possibilities.)
  7. Signed. Signatures are optional, but are useful when mediating between two people or emphasizing an agreement between parent and child. Signatures are not proof of guilt or innocence if agreements are broken. They are tangible ways to emphasize agreements and commitments to try a plan. 


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PERSON #1:  ________________________________________________


PERSON #2: (if it applies)  ______________________________________

SUMMARIZE THE PROBLEM:  ___________________________________



                        BRAINSTORM                                                EVALUATE

_________________________________         _________________________________

_________________________________         _________________________________

_________________________________         _________________________________

DECIDE:(Who, What, When, How, Other)   _______________________________________




NEXT TIME IT HAPPENS: Backup plans (or reveal discipline for Parent problems)





SIGNED: ____________________________               _____________________________

(Person#1)                                                       (Person#2)

Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.