So your kid made you angry again. But who owns the problem? And what can you do about it?


It sounds so simple doesn’t it? Life’s puzzles are often simple, but seldom easy.  The truth is the beginning isn’t always easy to know. Is it your own childhood? Your parent’s childhoods? Does the beginning for the human beings you are trying to raise start in parts destined to stay unknown?

I will say over and over again that there is only one person on the planet that you can control. No, it’s not your children, partner or parents…it is you. So since we each consider ourselves, often unconsciously, the center of the universe, you might as well always begin with you.

Since we inevitably parent and teach who we are, one of the greatest gifts we can give others is to truly know who we are. To strive to consciously choose when who we are is serving us and others, and when it is getting in the way. This often means spending some time reflecting on our own childhoods and previous experiences. And taking time to understand the meaning we have designated those events and people that impact our actions today. Current brain research supports the idea of the emotional echoes from our childhood experiences continuing to color the way we perceive current events- our lens through which we see “now” prevents us from a completely objective observation. Once we have some understanding of how the primary relationships from our own upbringing add zings of emotion or visceral responses to occurrences in the here and now, we can at least have some consciousness of when our responses are out of proportion, or weighted with long gone deep-feeling, and try to counter-balance that as appropriate.

When I realize what I value and why, and then go further to consider deeply how and if it is appropriate to a current situation, it gives illumination to the decisions of action or inaction to be made. A clarity can come to me- “oh yeah, here comes my irritation over this pet peeve…this child has not purposefully stayed up nights trying to figure out how to push me over the edge…it’s me and my stuff.” Or: “Wow this is so incredibly important to me, I need to make clear to this person why I am adamant about this outcome.” It can be very enlightening to a primary relationship as well- “sorry I was acting so jealously, it’s an over-reaction because of my childhood.”  Small realizations can make huge differences in our overall relationships.


As I said, it sounds simple; but in fact, a good deal of the work in parenting and partnering is just this: willingness to dredge past hurts and happenings for how those are acting as barriers to the goals we have in front of us, now. As with all of development, it is a process, not an end-goal, and one that all parents will get plenty of opportunities to visit and deepen. All well and good, but how does that translate into practical skills for parenting and relationship this moment?

I have had the good fortune to work for over 12 years with a woman co-facilitating parenting classes. One of the most powerful units we teach is about problem ownership. It is also the lesson most parents have difficulty taking in.  And later, on feedback forms, it is a tool parents come to cherish. It begins simply with the idea “Whose needs are being thwarted in this situation?”

Immediately parents either make everything their problem, or everything the child’s problem- of course it is never as black and white as that. They also soon express concerns that if situation is the child’s problem they won’t be able to help.  And as with all situations in life, what begins clear and precise can snowball into blizzards of confusion and messiness.

So we often wind up extending the clarifying question into “Whose original problem is it?” “Whose original needs were thwarted?”

Once the ownership of the problem has been clarified, this will help to determine the best approach. This doesn’t mean that if it is the child’s problem you don’t get to help, or speak with them- it does mean that you will offer a different kind of support and attitude than if it is clearly the adult’s issue.

If it is the adult’s problem (I need the rooms cleaned, I need to know you are safe, I want to be treated with respect) the approach is one of self-control or self-action.

Taking care of it yourself is one way to keep control.  First, ALWAYS FIRST is the question “Is it really a problem and why?” Kids getting muddy can feel like a thorn in your side…why? Because of clean up? Because of worry about illness? Because your mother never let you do it? Maybe it really isn’t the problem you thought it was- giving yourself time to evaluate the situation (sometimes even out loud so the children hear your thinking) is a terrific model for your children.

Since you start with your self, and if you have decided the situation definitely is a problem for you, then ask yourself the question “how can I handle this myself?” It is always more powerful to look at your own choices- the ones you can directly impact. Whenever you can choose to not rely on the will of someone else, then at least you know when the responsibility was yours to begin with.  It’s important to remember that it is the situation that is the problem…not the person. Whenever going into conflict or problem solving with the point of view that “this person needs to change” you will find the road much more harrowing than if you looked for solutions in a given area of behavior or ones that you are the one to implement.

Plan ahead whenever possible to avoid problems- you know what the pizza parlor will be like, what the temptations in the store will be, how likely the relative you are visiting is to be upset by certain behaviors. As the adult you have the advantage of forethought for which young children simply don’t have the cognitive abilities. Foreshadow expectations for your children. For the very young or struggling child, make sure you have a plan B, or even plan C in mind- thus setting everyone up for success.

Make requests- this seems so easy- just ask, right? There are so many ways to go wrong here- the tone of voice, making sure we are asking for the behavior we want in positive terms- say “walking feet” instead of “don’t run”, offer acceptable, limited choices so the child gets some control, problem solve with the child to explore alternatives, turn to the child as a consultant- letting them know you understand their needs, you have needs as well, how can all those needs get met? And when you make the request, make sure it is not a vague statement of how you are feeling, with no action asked for- saying you are “uncomfortable” with something is not saying you want different behavior.

Provide information, training and reasons- we take for granted how much we know and how far we have come since childhood. By slowing down and providing step by step training or the underlying reasons for a request the children trust that requests are not arbitrary commands that serve only to interrupt what they are doing. On the other hand, going on and on when a child already knows the reasons because you have explained it to them in the past starts to sound like a lecture from Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Wah wah wah wah wah” Sometimes saying it in a word is better: “teeth”, “jammies”, “walk”.

Express your feelings as you want your children to learn to express theirs- use humor when possible, but not if you need a serious response. Use the “I” message formula: “When___________(behavior) happens, I feel___________(feeling, like frustrated, upset) because______________.(reason for request). Not only will you be shocked and happily surprised when this comes back to you from your child, just by thinking through the formula, sometimes a realization dawns that the problem is linked to those past responses, and not to the here and now of the child you are raising.

Do the unexpected- walk away, do a somersault, say something silly- break the tension first, then return to your request.

AFTER, and only after trying some of the above, and still finding your needs not met you can move to natural or logical consequences. That is a whole other article.

So how about when it is the child’s problem? This is such a sticky area because children are often confronted with problems they do not have the experience or knowledge to solve effectively. Again, you are not leaving them to drift without support, but understanding that every time you take on your child’s problem the message to them is that they are unable to accomplish the task without you. Sometimes this feeds a parent’s need to be needed, which is fine until the child becomes college age, and unable to apply critical thinking or capabilities to the problems that life hands us daily as adults. Whenever confronted with “someone else’s” problem there are 3 main ways to approach your role as supporter.

Listen, listen listen…we really don’t do this well, and don’t take time to practice true active listening AND this is often what the other individual, be it child or adult really needs- to feel heard. Active listening includes empathetic remarks and body language, eye contact and relaxed body posture, and the ability to reflect back both the words and meaning the other is trying to convey. During this time you can grant a fantasy or wish, with words of understanding. Notice this does not say fix, fix, fix- which is often the first response we give or receive, and that sends the message of lack of trust, lack of respect, and undermines our abilities to truly, deeply, listen.

Act as a consultant- Children do need the adult experience and ideas to provide scaffolding by which they can build successes and confidence. After thoroughly listening, ask if the child wants help. Don’t take over, and don’t offer too many ideas without allowing the child control of the process. When you seek out a consultant as an adult, you do not expect the consultant to take over, ignore your wishes and feelings, and come to help whether invited or not. Make sure you give children the same room for exploring their own ideas and solutions. You can also provide training, offer your skill set to supplement and support their ideas, or offer to accompany a child through a process that might involve other adults or children- again, remaining conscious of allowing the child to do what they are capable of without taking over. Teach your child the same skills you practice when it is your problem, so they have an array of approaches to any situation.

Offer support- As above you can offer to accompany a child as they indicate the need, but also step back and offer encouragement and confidence when you feel they are ready to take independent steps in problem solving. Point out successful strategies you have seen them use in the past, or past accomplishments that have similar aspects. Convey your unconditional love and understanding, and let children know that mistakes or missteps are how human beings learn.

Go back to listening if you find yourself in the “yes, but” game with a child who knocks away your suggestions, or insists that they are unable to think of any ideas, or rejects your offers of support or consultation.

Occasionally a problem will be genuinely mutual- and that calls for cooperation, brainstorming, and seeking win-win solutions that consider everyone’s needs. It is fine for you to remain the adult or for expediency occasionally make some choices for everyone.



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