Do you have a recurring problem in your family? Is there an issue that comes up day after day and causes disruption? Many families seek parent coaching around difficult situations which happen repeatedly in their daily lives. Two common examples are battles over homework and arguments over turning off screens. As a coach, I like to ask moms and dads to imagine what their lives would be like without these problems.
Imagine shifting from the heaviness of a problem to the lightness and possibility of creating lasting solutions together. This is the magic of collaborating as a family to solve problems together. The Oxford dictionary defines collaboration as “work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something.”
How can families work together to alleviate the frustration of having the same problem over and over again?
In our book, Real-Time Parenting: Choose Your Action Steps for the Present Moment, we define five steps families can take to solve problems together.
- Set a time and place for the conversation. Do not attempt this in the heat of the moment.
- Define the problem or issue or disagreement. Listen to each person’s point of view.
- Brainstorm possible solutions. Write down every idea, or have your children write them down, to validate each one without judgment.
- Agree on one solution to try and create a plan. Decide which action steps each person will take and how each person will work toward the solution.
- Plan to follow up and make adjustments as needed. Set a time and place for the next conversation to talk about how the solution is working.
Do not attempt in the heat of the moment.
Negative emotions run high when we are in conflict. Recurring problems make each family member extremely frustrated for different reasons. The first step for collaborating on a solution is to talk about it when everyone is calm and there is no immediate crisis. Schedule a time and place to have a conversation. Would after dinner or a weekend morning be a natural time when everyone is together and relaxed? Where can you meet that is neutral? It is important to find a comfortable location for everyone. For example, if the problem is about getting off the Xbox, then it would be better to have the conversation in a different room than the machine. Just seeing the source of conflict could be a trigger for your family member.
Listen to each person’s point of view.
We each see things differently and have unique needs. Appreciating different perspectives is the first step towards solving problems together.
Consider your family’s problem. Can you put yourself in your child’s shoes and look at the situation from their angle? When a conflict arises, it is important to pause and consider what the other people involved are experiencing. The only way to really know is to ask them for feedback. Take turns asking each other for their thoughts and listening to the responses.
Brainstorm possible solutions by considering everyone’s ideas.
This is the creative part where everyone gets to contribute. Give each family member a chance to voice ideas. As you brainstorm possible solutions, accept all ideas before choosing a few to try. Write down each idea so everyone can see them and feel heard. When parents listen to their children’s ideas and show confidence in their ability to contribute to solutions, children feel respected.
Agree on an action plan together.
Once everyone’s ideas are listed, it is time to review them. Go through the list and discuss what ideas make the most sense to try. Devise a plan that everyone can live with. When kids get to collaborate and create a plan, they are typically more successful at following through with it. Parents usually need to provide guidance during this process. Once an idea is agreed upon, it is important that everyone commit to testing it out. It may help to ask each family member: do you agree to test out this solution for the week?
Schedule the next conversation to follow up on the plan.
This last step is critical. the original plan may need to be tweaked. Sometimes the first idea doesn’t work at all and you need to go back to the drawing board. Either way, it is important to discuss how the plan is working for each person involved. Follow up conversations teach children valuable life skills such as responsibility and resilience. When we work together instead of against each other, we can overcome challenges and strengthen our relationships.
A family creates a better homework routine.
Shelly and Jim were parents of Cassandra, age twelve, and James, age fifteen. They came to parent coaching because of a recurring problem with their teenagers. Shelly and Jim spent a great deal of time reminding their teenagers to get their homework done. This included repeated requests to put electronics away and start on homework. They would often threaten a punishment yet lacked follow-through. Mom and Dad felt annoyed and disrespected that their requests were not honored. Cassandra and James felt badgered.
Shelley and Jim decided to try collaborative problem-solving with Cassandra and James. They recalled from coaching conversations how this approach honors the children’s right to be part of the problem-solving process and gives children practice to work through life’s challenges. Shelley and Jim wanted to demonstrate the trust and confidence they had in Cassandra and James to improve the situation. They decided to follow the five steps they learned for solving problems together.
Shelley and Jim had a family meeting with the kids. They started by making a positive statement about both Cassandra and James regarding their schoolwork. They then shared their frustration about the homework routine. They asked Cassandra and James for ideas on how to better structure the evenings so that homework would be started without nagging or arguing. Cassandra shared that her friends were often on Snapchat in the early evening and she wanted to connect with them. James said that he needed some downtime between school activities and homework. Shelley and Jim shared that they value good study habits and a strong work ethic. They clarified their expectation for a homework routine, but that the work and resulting grades were Cassandra’s and James’s responsibility.
The family decided on a new routine. Cassandra and James could utilize thirty minutes of screen time before dinner. Once dinner was over, they would focus on homework, without their devices. Cassandra’s plan was to do homework in the kitchen. James would complete his homework in the dining room, using his iPad as needed. Shelley and Jim would make sure the homework got started but would trust that the kids would be responsible for completing it. The family agreed to try this plan for a week and review it the following weekend.
Keep Working Together on Solutions.
It may take your family several attempts to arrive at a workable solution to the problem. Keep in mind the process of collaborating and reviewing progress teaches children life-long skills. They are learning how to listen to different perspectives, brainstorm ideas, and agree to changes until everyone is satisfied with the solution. These critical communication skills will enhance all their future relationships, including personal and professional ones. Look to Real-Time Parenting: Choose Your Action Steps for the Present Moment for lots of stories of parents finding enduring solutions to every day issues.