By Betsy Fenzel, LCSW-C, LCSW, LiCSW
“My son (age 4) will not share. He has a toy that his little sister also wants and he refuses to give it up after his turn is done. They start pulling on it and yelling. I jump in right away and tell him he must share and take it from him and give it to his sister. He starts crying. I am frustrated. This seems to happen every day, multiple times a day. I am exhausted. What else can I do?”
In my work with parents, I frequently hear scenarios like this one. Parents wonder what they can do differently to resolve conflicts. They want to help their children follow rules and get along with others but seem to be teaching the same lesson over and over. Parents’ intention is to help their child learn but they are left feeling defeated and overwhelmed.
For situations like these, I recommend parents slow down the process. Often parents rush into resolving the problem for their child instead of helping them learn how to problem solve for themselves. Like the parent above, they jump in and take over, managing the situation instead of allowing it to be an opportunity for learning. To help the child develop their own problem solving skills, I suggest parents become their child’s MVP, following three steps:
Mindfully Pause: Before you can help your child, take a moment to check in with yourself. How am I feeling at this moment? What do I need to do for myself before I can help my child? Maybe, its as a simple as a quick breath. Maybe it’s a reminder to yourself to stay calm. Maybe it’s a decision to wait to handle this situation later. Whatever you decide, doing a “U-turn” and focusing on yourself first will allow you to enter the situation in a more productive, available mindset.
Step 2: Validate
Kids, like all people, want to feel they are understood. Let your child know you get where they are coming from by putting words to their feelings and experience. “I get you really like that toy and you don’t want to share. You are feeling mad.” Sometimes, we know the feeling and don’t know what happened. This is the time to ask “I see you are really upset. Can you tell me what happened?” Validating a child’s feelings makes them more open to the idea of problem solving, changing their behavior and compromising, setting the stage for success in Step 3.
Step 3, Problem Solve
After taking care of yourself and acknowledging your child’s feelings, then it is time to move into problem solving. I encourage parents to enlist their children in this process so kids can begin to learn how to do it for themselves. “I hear your idea is that you want to play with this toy just for you. And your sister’s idea is she would like a turn. That sounds like a problem. What do you think we should do to solve it?” For younger kids, parents will need to provide suggestions (maybe we can use a timer to take turns or maybe when she is playing with that toy, you and I can start a fun puzzle?). As kids get older, they will be able to come up with their own solutions, often much more creative than adults would consider! Once you have moved through the problem solving steps, make sure to recognize your child’s efforts. “I see that you really thought about how to fix this problem and look how well it went. You both got time to play with the toy and there was no yelling and crying. Great job!”
Being your child’s MVP takes time and patience but the rewards will be worth it: parents who are spending less time refereeing their children’s behavior and kids who are developing valuable problem solving skills that will serve them into adulthood.