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Problem Solving for Parents – How to Ask Questions That Will Get You Better Help

Problem solving as a parent sometimes fills me with confusion and overwhelm. I find myself seeing all of things going wrong and despairing at figuring anything out.

One of the things I've always had difficulty with is asking for help. Not because I don't want it, but because I get confused and overwhelmed when I try to figure out what kind of help to ask for. Sometimes this means I wind up asking the wrong questions, or simply asking too broadly and not really getting the support I need. If this sounds like you, I hope the following will be useful.

Asking specific questions

I have a dear friend who is a design engineer. As he says, problem solving is his jam. I asked him once how he gets help as he works through complex problems. His answer is simple, but has given me guidance for asking better question in order to get better help:

“In order to solve a generic problem, you have to be able to define what the actual problem is. If you don't know what you're trying to do, how can you work towards it?

Now this definition doesn't have to be complete to start. You can iterate it as you figure things out.

As you find out more and more requirements you can get better answers from experts, because you are asking a specific question instead of a broad one.”

~Josh Rosen

There is a lot we can take from this short statement when faced with a parenting dilemma.

1. You have to be able to define what the actual problem is.

Often we have a knee jerk reaction when a difficult situation arises in our family. We can wind up only looking at the symptoms instead of digging deeper into what's causing them. For instance, last winter my son's behavior was terrible at home. It seemed like he was angry every day after school.

The anger was really frustrating, but was actually only a symptom. It was covering his other emotions. After a lot of reflection and discussion my husband and I realized, it's not that he's angry. The problem is that he's very unhappy and he’s expressing this through anger. Not only did this give us compassion, it helped us reframe the problem and ask better questions about what was going on in his days.

2. The definition of the problem doesn't have to be complete to start.

This is critical. As we put effort into solving any issue we learn things we didn’t know before. This is an important reminder that sometimes problem solving is messy. If you already knew the answer you wouldn’t be looking for help to begin with. This means instead of bashing yourself for going down a dead-end trail, you can see it as part of the process. [Related: Build Yourself up – 10 phrases to get rid of negative self talk]

At first we thought my son’s angry behavior was because of having a hard time getting up early for school in the morning and not eating all of his lunch. It took working on these issues for a while for us to realize there was something more going on. As we dug deeper we realized that the actual problem we were working on had more to do with him feeling disconnected from us and from his teacher.

Our problem had gone through an evolution. It started out: he’s angry every day after school. Then became: he’s angry because he’s unhappy. And finally we reached the root of it: he’s angry because he’s unhappy and he’s unhappy because he’s not getting time to connect with us or with his teacher due to the larger class size and our busy schedules.

3. As you find out more and more requirements you can get better answers from experts, because you are asking a specific question instead of a broad one.

When it comes to solving problems in your family, consulting with ‘experts' could mean:

  • reading books or blogs
  • asking your partner for help
  • talking with a wise friend
  • talking to your child's teacher
  • asking a therapist for help

No matter what expert you go to, you'll get better help if you have more specifically defined problems to work on. Some people are great at helping you do this refining. I have a friend who I can just blurt out everything to and get to the root of things, it's wonderful. But that getting to the root of things is necessary so you can really get good help.

Next – when you're seeking help: What are the requirements for solving your problem? For instance, we had to look at my son’s anger and ask ourselves: are we willing to pull him from this school? No? Then we need to find a solution that fits with him still going to this school.

“Requirements” when it comes to parenting might also take the shape of finding solutions that fit within your values. In our family we would not be willing to try to solve the problem of a child’s anger by using punishment. That wouldn’t fit with our parenting values. 

As we continued looking at what was going on with our son we were finally able to define the problem as: We need to add more connection into our son’s day. This is far more specific than: My son is angry all the time.

Once we had this more specific problem to work on we could ask for help from the school. (A simple seating change gave him more access to the aide in the class.)  At home we were able to enact solutions that really fit what was going on. (Making sure we sat down to dinner as a family regularly again, and looking for more little connection opportunities during the day made a big difference.)  Had we wanted to seek help from another expert, for instance talking to a counselor, we would have been able to give more specific information about the problem.

To Recap – How to Get Better Help When Problem Solving:

  • Define the problem you are trying to solve.
  • You do not have to solve everything at once. I repeat, you do not have to solve everything at one. Keep refining your problem until you get down to something specific – remember you can come back and work on those other worries later. Solving just one thing will be more approachable and will at least shift the situation, possibly eliminating the other problems altogether.
  • Get more and more specific in order to get the best answers when you’re asking for help.

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