I’ve alluded to problem solving skills a few times in my earlier posts and today is the day we will talk about the steps you can take to actually solve your parenting problems. A parenting problem can be anything from your child engaging in an undesirable behavior like hitting to you feeling dissatisfied with your own daily parenting routine. These are basic steps that I used to teach my patients in therapy sessions. My kindergartener even came home from school with a print-out of these steps. I’m not comparing you to a psychotic person or a kindergartener, but in your frustrating parenting moments, perhaps you have felt a bit like that? Have you ever caught yourself in a frustrating parenting moment saying something like, “Well, then you’re not going to get (insert child’s favorite treat or activity) today” without stopping to think about whether that was the best approach to solving the problem? We all let our emotions get the best of us at times. Having young children can be stressful and when we’re stressed we tend to overlook the problem solving process, but really taking the time to look more methodically and objectively at a situation can make it much easier to manage. If you think about how you solve problems in your life when you’re in a more rational mindset, you will probably come up with these steps but most of us haven’t taken the time to step back and examine how we tackle life’s challenges.
We’ve been focussing on sleep lately, so I’m going to teach you the steps using an example of a bedtime problem I encountered with my daughter when she was about 3 1/2 years old. Any number of acronyms can be used to help you remember the steps: STEP, SCALE, etc. I’ll use SOLVE:
S: State the problem. Without adding a lot of emotion to it, define the problem.
In my example, my daughter shared a room with her older brother and they had the same bedtime. For at least half a year this had been a perfect set-up and they each fell asleep within minutes of tuck-in time. Then she periodically started having trouble falling asleep and would talk, sing, etc. at bedtime. There was no obvious pattern for her clearly not being ready for bed at her usual bedtime but it would happen a couple of times a week. The more this went on, the more disruptive she would get, talking louder, preventing her brother from going to sleep, coming out of her room, etc. We went from blissful bedtimes to quite a raucous and unpredictable routine. S: My daughter does not fall asleep at her usual bedtime.
O: Options. Think of every possible way you could solve this problem, even the ones that seem ridiculous; openly brainstorming just might lead to other great ideas or at least add a bit of humor to help deter any frustration you’re feeling.
- Change her bedtime
- Change her brother’s bedtime
- Have them sleep in different rooms
- Have mom or dad stay outside the room to intervene quickly when disruption occurs
- Have mom or dad stay in the room until she falls asleep
- Provide a reward for going to bed on time
L: List the pros and cons of each possible option for solving the problem.
- She might be more ready for bed at a later time but she might be overly tired if she still wakes up at the same time; also older brother would not like it if she got to stay up later; also her sleep duration seemed appropriate for her age
- Brother could be kept up later allowing sister to fall asleep with less distraction but he tends to wake up at the same time every day so that would leave him sleep-deprived; also that would eat into adult time in the evenings
- Baby brother was already in the picture by this point so we could move sister into her own room but then big brother might be woken up in the night by baby brother; also sister loved sharing a room with big brother and wasn’t ready to move to her own room yet
- Supervising from the hallway might help if she’s just testing boundaries and isn’t too inconvenient for mom/dad but isn’t a long-term solution
- Staying in the bedroom should help stop disruptive behavior but is a bigger adjustment to our normal routine where the kids fall asleep on their own after tuck-in and mom/dad leave the room
- She would likely respond to a reward but I tend not to like rewarding a behavior that had been mastered; rather, I tend to reward new behaviors the children are working on mastering then phase out the reward once the behavior is established.
V: (Choose the) Very best one. Pick the option you think will work best for you and your child.
We chose what seemed like the simplest solution but one that might actually work and I started lingering in the hallway outside their door after tuck-in (option 4) so that I could pop my head in as soon as I heard her talking or climbing out of bed and remind her that it was bedtime and their bodies needed enough rest to be ready for a fun day tomorrow.
E: Evaluate the outcome. Have you seen the type of progress you were hoping for? If not, return to the previous step and try a different option, then evaluate the outcome.
Option 4 was clearly not the right approach for her. Many nights she would go right to sleep or need 1 reminder but others she would be relentlessly energetic and clearly not ready for bed. So we tried option 6. Then option 5. Then option 1; even with a later bedtime, she still had restless bedtimes on some nights. Then option 2; we would put her to sleep first and that seemed to help a little, but she still had those nights where she would be up for a long time past bedtime so then her brother was kept up too late. Then option 3; we would put him to sleep in our bed and move him into his after she fell asleep. Trying out all of these options took a couple of months and by that time we were very ready for our easy bedtimes to return but out of options. So, we went all the way back to the second problem-solving step: Options and came up with a new list of options to try. This time I consulted with trusted mom friends and gained some great insight about how since having younger brother, our bedtime routine had changed a bit so we normalized that as much as we could. But still, she had these occasional nights of wakefulness, until it hit me one day as we were driving around in the afternoon and she fell asleep, that perhaps the little catnaps she snuck in once or twice a week could be disrupting her nighttime sleep. She had stopped napping regularly but if we happened to be out later in the afternoon, she would still fall asleep in the car. The wakeful nights weren’t always on these nap days, but I thought perhaps the accumulated sleep from those naps was affecting her sleep schedule. I started actively keeping her from falling asleep in the car and just like magic our easy bedtimes were back in action. Although cutting out these car naps was the most helpful thing, we had noticed the benefit of staggered bedtimes; plus, by cutting out these occasional car naps she was more tired than usual at bedtime and benefitted from an earlier bedtime than her brother. And that was the beginning of our 15-minute staggered bedtime between children.
This was a particularly difficult problem to solve which required several passes through the SOLVE steps, some good brainstorming sessions with other moms, and continued brainstorming that lead to the “Ah ha!” moment where I realized the car naps might be the culprit and added cutting out car naps to the “Options” list. If you use the steps to guide you and have perseverance, even the toughest parenting problems can be solved.
These steps are great to teach your kids too! They encounter problems daily, especially in their interactions with friends and siblings. Teach your kids these steps to help them solve their own problems. Instead of running to break-up every fight between the kids at our house, I’ll often holler, “Be a problem solver!” to help inspire them to work through their own problems using the same techniques I do.