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How To Help Teens Solve Their Own Problems

Adolescents, by virtue of their “not fully-developed” brains, typically have poor problem-solving skills. As a result, they struggle in many areas of their lives. When they encounter unfamiliar complications, they may become overwhelmed and unable to resolve problems independently, which often translates into behavioral issues (e.g., back-talk, disrespect, violation of house-rules, etc.).

Teenagers encounter so many different problems during adolescence. Tough teenage challenges coupled with poor problem-solving skills often influences teens to act-out in ways they never would if they knew how to solve their dilemmas. They have social problems (e.g., the inability to get along well with certain peers), functional problems (e.g., meeting responsibilities at home or school), and emotional problems (e.g., feeling angry, sad, frustrated or helpless). Many adolescents who lack problem-solving skills will simply try to avoid the problem completely; they will ignore it in hopes that it will go away. Unfortunately, problems don’t simply disappear.

The key to effective problem-solving involves developing a variety of solutions first. Then, evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of each solution before choosing which solution is most likely to be the best. Simply recognizing that there are many ways to solve the same issue can be eye opening to adolescents.

Below is a solid problem-solving strategy that you can – and should – teach your teenager. The better your teen is at solving her own problems, the less behavioral issues you will see as a parent.

Teach your teen to solve virtually any problem by using this 7-step approach:
  1. Define the problem
  2. Examine potential causes for the problem
  3. Identify some alternatives to resolve the problem
  4. Carefully select an alternative
  5. Develop a plan to implement that best alternative
  6. Carefully monitor implementation of the plan
  7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not

We will use the following scenario throughout in order to demonstrate each step:

You have noticed a change in your daughter’s attitude and behavior recently. She seems a bit down-in-the-dumps and has had a very short fuse lately. One evening over dinner, your daughter asserts, “Nobody likes me!” This catches you off-guard, because it sounds like such an exaggeration. In your shock and dismay, you might even ask, “Why would you say such a thing? That’s simply not true!” After a little investigation on your part, your daughter reveals that a few of her ‘friends’ at school have been making fun of her (i.e., emotional bullying). These peers have been saying some very hurtful things (e.g., you’re fat, ugly, stupid). So, being the perceptive parent that you are, you help your daughter to solve her own problem…

1. Define the problem: This is often where teens struggle. They react to what they “think” the problem is (e.g., “nobody likes me”). Instead, help your teen to understand more about why she thinks there is a problem by asking her the following questions:
  • What is happening?
  • How is it happening?
  • When is it happening?
  • Where is it happening?
  • Why do you think it is happening?
  • With whom is it happening?

2. Examine potential causes for the problem: Help your teen look at the possible contributors to the issue at hand (e.g., are these “bullying classmates” jealous for some reason, did your daughter say or do something to “piss them off”). Your daughter can start by writing down a description of the potential cause(s) of the problem in terms of what is happening, where, when, how, with whom and why.

3. Identify some alternatives to resolve the problem: At this point, it is helpful to brainstorm for solutions to the problem. Brainstorming is simply collecting as many ideas as possible, then screening them to find the best idea. It's critical when collecting the ideas to not pass any judgment on them. Instead, just write them down as you think of them. For example, can your daughter do any of the following?
  • avoid fighting back – this inevitably makes a bad problem worse
  • report the emotional abuse to a teacher or other school staff
  • avoid drawing attention to herself (e.g., trying to act "cool" or saying outrageous things) – this makes it more satisfying for the bullies to bring her down
  • realize that if there is just one bully who has a group of friends that follow her, it's most likely they are her friends involuntarily (in this case, your daughter could try to make small talk with them when they are alone, listen to them, and be genuinely interested in what they are saying)
  • kill them with kindness (e.g., saying something nice "back to them" when they insult her)
  • avoid talking to them – talking to them will give them a chance to be mean to her
  • avoid reacting to their rude comments (e.g., ignore them, just smile and walk off)
  • avoid giving them the attention they clearly want – bullies want attention
  • simply ask the bullies why they are repeatedly making such rude comments – they may be jealous, angry, or possibly insecure

4. Carefully select an alternative: When helping your teen to select the best approach, consider: (a) which approach is the most realistic to accomplish for now (e.g., simply avoiding and ignoring the bullies), (b) which approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the long-term (e.g., recruiting the help of vigilant teachers), and (c) what is the extent of risk associated with each alternative (e.g., “killing them with kindness” might be perceived by the bullies as sarcastic).

5. Develop a plan to implement that best alternative: Help your teen to carefully answer the following questions:
  • How much time will I need to implement my proposed solution?
  • What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving the problem? 
  • Who can help me resolve this problem?
  • What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?

Have your teen write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as her action plan.

6. Carefully monitor implementation of the plan: Your teen can monitor the indicators of success by asking herself the following:
  • Was the plan realistic?
  • Should more priority be placed on various aspects of the plan?
  • Should the plan be changed?
  • Am I seeing the results that I want to see?

7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not: One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved or not is to ask your teen the following:
  • Have the “putdowns” aimed at you by these girls decreased in frequency?
  • What did you learn from this problem solving activity?
  • Have you been able to identify a "main" bully (i.e., the leader of the pack), and if so, have you been able to befriend some of the bully's followers?
  • What changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in the future?

True, it takes a lot of time, energy and patience to teach problem-solving skills to your teenager. As a parent, you may feel it is faster and more efficient to just take care of the problem yourself (e.g., talking to the parents of the bullies, or going to the school and yelling at the principal); however, if you do that, you will be raising a teen who can’t be depended upon to accomplish tasks, can’t function independently, doesn't know how to solve her own problems, has low self-esteem, and runs to you to fix everything.

Of course, the parent wants her or his kids to be confident, self-sufficient, happy and successful. But for that to happen, they need the opportunity to grow. This requires a mom or dad who is willing to step back and let teens experience life and all its painful challenges – and then help them to help themselves.

Parenting Rebellious Teens

One day you wake up and find that life has changed forever. Instead of greeting you with a hug, your little boy rolls his eyes when you say "good morning" and shouts, "You're ruining my life!" You may think you've stepped into the Twilight Zone, but you've actually been thrust into your son's teen years.

During adolescence, teens start to break away from parents and become "their own person." Some talk back, ignore rules and slack off at school. Others may sneak out or break curfew. Still others experiment with alcohol, tobacco or drugs. So how can you tell the difference between normal teen rebellion versus dangerous behavior? And what's the best way for a parent to respond?

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Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

Many families of defiant children live in a home that has become a battleground. In the beginning, the daily struggles can be expected. After all, we knew that problems would occur. Initially, stress can be so subtle that we lose sight of a war, which others do not realize is occurring. We honestly believe that we can work through the problems.

Outbursts, rages, and strife become a way of life (an emotionally unhealthy way of life). We set aside our own needs and focus on the needs of our children. But what does it cost us?

The majority of the population does not understand the dynamics of parenting an ODD child. Family and friends may think that you - the parent - are the one with the problem. Families are frequently turned in on false abuse allegations. Support is non-existent, because outsiders can't even begin to imagine that children can be so destructive. Where does that leave a parent?

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