Problem Solving & Goal Setting Skills
Learning Package 4
This Problem Solving and Goal Setting Skills learning package has been created for parents who would like to develop and improve their knowledge on Problem solving, goal setting in everyday life situations. Through this package parents will be able to identify and recognise the phases and situations of problem solving, apply solutions according to this approach and deal with everyday life conflicts using an alternative and functional structure of communication.
As parents, managing problems, setting goals for daily-life issues is essential for a good and healthy family life and it affects your children and your relationship with them. That’s why managing problems positively and constructively helps you and your children to develop in the best way possible. Moreover, making your problem-solving strategies and goal setting skills visible will help your child to cope with their own real-life issues because they have a positive model to follow and copy. It can teach them important skills for life. Moreover, it can give you some confidence in confronting issues instead of avoiding them, while you can guide the members of your family into a proper form of communication.
After going through the learning package, parents will be able to:
- Describe the concept of problem solving and goal setting;
- List the phases of problem solving ;
- Define the terms related to the topic ;
- List the different types of problem solving.
After the learning package, the parent should be able to:
- Identify a problem-situation;
- Apply solutions according to the problem solving approach;
- Create strong commitment with their relatives;
- Recognise and prevent problems;
- Feel like they are working as a team.
Scientific literature and research show us that alternative approaches (targeted parent training programmes to develop problem solving skills for example) to manage children’s disruptive behaviour or other problems they can face such as bullying, conflict with friends etc, results in better cooperation form the children’s side, they are more responsive. Setting goals, problem solving strategies, setting clear expectations and limits  are examples of some of the skills learned in these programmes that can have a beneficial effect on children’s responses and on the whole family. 
On the specific question of problem solving , there are already proven examples of efficient parenting approaches. Some of them rely on emotion regulation, some place emphasis on underlying cognitive skills necessary for problem-solving, while others consider parent and child factors that can lead to functional or dysfunctional parent-child interactions and compliant or non-compliant behaviour in children. In this learning package we will focus on the interactions between parents and children. It is therefore relevant to have a good overview of the various situations that a parent can use to apply these skills in different everyday life situations.
Sometimes, parenting doesn’t evolve the way you had envisioned, however, the child will always be connected to their parents. It means that parents have to find their way in good parenting, taking decisions and accepting the vulnerability that comes with it. – Adult educator (S4P focus group)
Regarding setting goals, people who pursue goal approaches, meaning who set a desired outcome to be achieved, are more likely to achieve their goals than people who pursue avoidance goals, meaning people who focus on undesired outcomes to be prevented. 
However, when it comes to parenting, studies have also shown that setting goals in not always enough to achieve the desired outcome and this sometimes needs to be reinforced and combined with problem solving skills to ensure the best outcome possible and a good child-parent relationship. Hence, treating both goals setting and problem solving in this package!
Some studies in recent years have focused on how families deal with setting boundaries for further information see the MEDIATION SKILLS LEARNING PACKAGE and setting rules and problem-solving approaches for young family members show some differences between parents who embraced an authoritative parenting style vs. authoritarian .
But whatever type of parent you are, research suggests that parents are more successful in problem solving and goal setting when they themselves have expanded their basic skills on the matter, are willing to negotiate (on the use of Internet for example, for some advice on this have a look at the DIGITAL SKILLS LEARNING PACKAGE), and are aware of how gender stereotypes can influence parenting approaches. (For example, parents tend to give to their sons less restrictions when going out at night or expect their daughters to show more feelings and emotion than boys.)
Even being aware of all this and trained on parenting skills does not guarantee that there will be no mistakes, we are all human! This is what Winicott explains in his “good enough parenting” theory. He states that it is unhelpful and unrealistic to demand perfection of parents, and rather defines parenting as a process that adequately meets the child’s needs, according to variable cultural standards and parent’s skills. What he was trying to say is that it is normal to make mistakes, and that they do not necessarily lead to irreversible traumas. It is impossible to be accessible, assertive and empathic all the time. In fact, it is fine to be “good enough” most of the time. This awareness will actually help to engage and strengthen the relationship between you and your children!
Goal setting or problem solving only is not always enough to pursue the desired outcome, especially in parenting. Therefore, a mixed and combined approach between problem solving strategies and goal setting is always a good practice to ensure the best outcome and a good parent-child interaction.
 Scahill, L., Sukhodolsky, D.G., Bearss, K., Findley, D., Hamrin, V., Carroll, D.H., & Rains, A.L. (2006). Randomized trial of parent management training in children with tic disorders and disruptive behavior. Journal of Child Neurology, 21(8), 650-656
 Oliver, P. H., Guerin, D. W., & Coffman, J. K. (2009). Big five parental personality traits, parenting behaviors, and adolescent behavior problems: A mediation model. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(6), 631-636.
 Epstein, T., & Saltzman-Benaiah, J. (2010). Parenting children with disruptive behaviours: Evaluation of a collaborative problem solving pilot program. Journal of Clinical Psychology Practice, 1(1), 27-40.
 Van Aar, J., Leijten, P., Overbeek, G., Thomaes, S., & Rothman, A. J. (2021). Does Setting Goals Enhance Parenting Intervention Effects? A Field Experiment. Behavior Therapy, 52(2), 418-429.
 Kesten, J. M., Sebire, S. J., Turner, K. M., Stewart-Brown, S., Bentley, G., & Jago, R. (2015). Associations between rule-based parenting practices and child screen viewing: a cross-sectional study. Preventive medicine reports, 2, 84-89.
 Hoghughi, M., & Speight, A. N. P. (1998). Good enough parenting for all children—a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of disease in childhood, 78(4), 293-296.
Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the causes of the problem; identifying solutions, prioritising, selecting alternatives and implementing a solution. This means it is not only a single action, it’s a step by step procedure that involves several actions.
Compliant: Willing to do whatever you are asked or ordered to do. Agreeing with a set of rules, standards, or requirements. Non-compliant is the opposite.
Authoritative parenting style vs. authoritarian parents: These two parenting styles in psychology both imply authority. Authoritarian style implies a lack of positive reinforcement and encouragement. Authoritarian parenting strategies involve strict rules and high expectations, while an authoritative parenting style includes sensitivity, positive reinforcement, and transparency. It involves explaining the reasoning behind decisions and rules. It utilises open communication and encourages discussion.
Goal setting involves the development of an action plan designed in order to motivate and guide a person or group toward a goal. This means that in order to reach a goal, you need to design a step by step procedure that leads to the desired outcome.
Knowing how to set goals is an important personal skill but can be also extremely valuable to parents. To make your family work as a team, it is good to have objectives and goals that can motivate and engage different individuals. Here you will learn about the general goal setting theory but also see through a concrete example how it can be applied to family life:
Five steps of goal setting
The following story is a first example of an every-day life situation that any family could face. You will have concrete actions to take, examples of good behaviour to adopt and age-appropriate conversation starters. This will help you to improve your goal setting skills. Remember that you and your children are problem solvers and that there can be different ways of solving problems. Take this into account while reading the case study.
Rossi family’s story
Sylvia and Francesca are divorced and they have four children: three boys (Andrea aged 5 , Antonio aged 6, Albert aged 11) and a girl (Anna aged 9). The children live with Sylvia in an appropriate but quite small flat in the centre of a small town. Francesca visits often to co-manage the family care and life (dinner, lunch, bringing children to school etc.) but the household is left entirely to Sylvia, who is a teacher and not always at home. The problem is the children do not participate to the household chores, which makes it impossible to keep the house clean and efficient.
1.Frame the current situation and set the expectations
The first step towards achieving success is through creating the best environment for it through rightful thinking. Everything in this world is created twice, first in the mind and then through action .
Gathering all of the family members’ opinions, trying to evaluate every statement and giving feedbacks about what is reported.
First of all, Sylvia could bring all children (and possibly also Francesca) together and start a discussion about household tasks, asking what they think about the actual state of play and what would be their ideal situation. This could give a good starting point and understand the perspective of every family member: for example they could say:
“So, how do you feel about the house and the cleaning in this house? Is there more to do? Do you think the state of the kitchen is ok?”
“Well, well… I feel that it is time for us to talk about our beautiful house, don’t you think? It should be treated well because we live here and because it’s nice to come home to a clean home. What do you think?”
2.Decide on the goal you wish to set
This may sound clear but deciding explicitly about which goals to follow (and which not) acts as a push factor and all the energy will be channeled towards the desired outcomes and not other goals not agreed together.
Communicate clearly with your family about what you want and be prepared to reinforce what they say. After deciding what is actually feasible, make sure everyone has agreed on it and make sure you are excited by your goal. This changing of the mindset helps in achieving the goals you set. Make also sure that everyone knows HOW to implement the goals:
“Ok, you told me what you wish for the house. Which goal do we agree to set?”
“I see that we have a lot of possibilities to improve our household. What should we focus on first?”
3.Process the goals: the things we must do well in order to perform well
Be prepared to give away some control for this. In fact, one of the key actions to succeed in goal setting is not deciding on your own but making a common decision and agreement. This ensures a good motivation and sets the basis for achievement. A good strategy is to document your goals and the steps to achieve them.
The process of documenting your goal does a number of very positive things for you. It ensures you focus on exactly what your goal is, not just a general feeling of what it is and is a permanent record of your goal so that you are consistently pursing the one goal. You have a future record against which to measure your progress. The process of converting your goal from thought to words engages more of your brain and clarifies the instructions you give to your unconscious mind.
“Anna is always awake early. Maybe she is the best to set the table in the morning. What do you think?”
“We could try to draw a weekly calendar for the household chores. Andrea could you draw for us a calendar on which we write who does what activity?”
“What are the things to do? Where can we write it down in order to remember them?”
4.Identify evidence and sustainability check
Ensure that achieving your goal fits into your life and the cost of achieving your goal is not too great for the benefit you achieve. Moreover, make sure to have markers to show somehow when your goal is achieved. This is a crucial step for ensuring achievement. If expectations and reality do not fit, it will be impossible to achieve your goals. Like: every day the house will be fully vacuumed and all the surfaces bleached. The entire family decides on the solution that best suits everyone’s needs, they can adjust and mix the suggested solutions to create it.
“Now that we know what we have to do and the division of tasks, wouldn’t it be great to set how we know that everything is going fine?”
“Is everyone fine with this set of tasks? Can you manage to wake up in time to make your bed and arrive at school on time?
5.Feedback, identify and remove blockages
After some time, it is important to reinforce all positive outcomes of the goal setting and work out whatever did not work well. Do not blame anyone for failing to reach certain goals, but rather try reasoning and brainstorming to understand why something did not work out.
Also, a good trick is to establish a captain (see characteristics of a good leader in the next section), to monitor progress and work them. A powerful captain can inspire a team to punch well above its weight and can give you important feedbacks about what is going on.
Of course as said in the introduction sometimes even with the best goals and follow-up plans possible, conflict and problems are unavoidable. In the next chapter you will see how to navigate the situation when the relation with your children gets tense and how to solve conflict when they arise.
 Schwartz, A. (2001). Goal Setting: Target Your Achievement. Waverly: Schwartz & Associates.
Effective communication with teenagers
- Let your teenager finish their thoughts, and practise active listening: listen in a non-judgmental way and try to understand their point, rephrase what they are saying to show you are listening.
- Don’t hesitate to take a break if things get heated. As a parent it is normal not to always be in control of your emotions.
- Be genuinely interested in your teenager’s life and ask questions occasionally.
- Do not shy away from sensitive topics such as sexual orientation, relationships – intimate conversations like this show vulnerability and build trust.
- Use “Door Openers”
Encourages your interlocutor to talk openly.
“Tell me what happened.” “What do you think is the right thing to do?” “How do you feel about that?” “What happened next?” “That’s a good question.”
Rather Than “Door Closers”
Leads your interlocutor to close up.
“I don’t want to hear that kind of talk.” “So what?” “I’ll tell you what you ought to do…” “Why are you asking me?” “Don’t come crying to me if you end up in a mess.”
Here are tips and pointers you can print and use in your daily life, to reflect on and to use as suggestions and reminders during everyday life issues:
Parents have started to feel ‘bulldozed’ by their own kids. – Debbie Pincus
Let’s try to be concrete: Does it seem like you have a war going on in your family—with you/your partner/grandparent on one side, and your children on the other? Many parents feel like they live in the middle of a battle zone and that at any given moment they might step on a landmine. Maybe you have a teen who is disrespectful and says rude and insulting things to family members. Maybe your preteen insists on having the final word on everything and puts your family member down all the time.
Here are a few tips for you to find a way out of this challenge and toward a problem-solving approach within your own family;
Shine a light on yourself, rather than on your child
Keep in mind that even at times of high stress, no matter how obnoxious your child’s behavior is, you must remain a calm, steady leader. Focus on your strengths, not on blaming your child.
Give your child the freedom to make their own mistakes and learn from them
As long as there is not a health, safety or other dangerous risk involved, let your child make their own mistakes—and then let them face the natural and logical consequences for their actions. Staying out of their way allows them to grow.
Stay on your child’s team
Remember that you are on your child’s team, not on the opposing side. Do not become their adversary. You are their coach and limit setter, not someone who needs the adults to “win” a battle to prove you are in control. Most of the time you prove the opposite.
Characteristics of a strong leader Strong leaders focus on the preservation of their own integrity. They have a willingness to take responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing and do not try to “make” other people happy by changing their character. Being a strong leader is a quality that will actually help your child want to be led by you, rather than to battle you.
So, what are the important things to remember when you want to step in an argument of your partner/parents/other family members with your children?
Obviously, both arguing parties are allowed to express their own feelings and arguments. But by arguing, we mean the continuous process of endless arguing with your child, without any prospect of improvement or learning. These disputes become a ‘normal’ way of communication if they want something to happen in their favour. How can you break these habits, and bring back a peaceful environment at home?
The nine steps indicated below can help you to change things around the house. These are the steps that you can talk through with another adult who argues with your child(ren) in order to mimimise the conflicts now and in the future.
However, conflicts and problems cannot always be avoided it is why it is important to develop problem solving skills as parents.
Obviously not everyone is the same and each of us have individual ways of managing situations. So, every situation is not only black or white and every person can relate more to one or the other approach according to their own character or situation. So not only you have a tendency to a specific problem-solving style, but your child also. There is a major subdivision when talking about problem solving personalities or styles: internal and conquerors on the one side and external and venters on the other side.
External/Venter Problem Solvers:
They prefer to solve problems on their own and tend to avoid speaking about their feelings. Maybe you can tell something is bothering them, but they do not want to talk about it.
They prefer to talk to someone about their problems and need support. Their need is often to get a reality-check. They are usually perfectly capable of solving the problem, but just find it helpful to get support.
Possible strategies if your child is an internal/conqueror problem solver:
– Just let them know you are there should they want to talk about it.
– Discuss their feelings long enough to show empathy and make sure there is no denial or avoidance.
– If they tend to overthink, try offering suggestions they can use on their own. Writing in a journal or list of possible solutions and the pros/cons for each.
Possible strategies if your child is an external/venter problem solver:
– Treat them as they are capable of solving the problem and avoid giving advice.
Regardless of the style, the problem-solving strategies are the same and it is still a good idea to go through every step of the problem-solving process, the steps are:
– Analyse the scene and define the problem.
– Clarify what each wants and brainstorm for solutions.
– Evaluate solutions and choose one.
– Choose one solution together and try it. Slightly adjust a proposed solution if necessary.
– Review solution. Give feedback.
The following story is an every-day life situation that you and your family could be faced with. You will discover what are the signs that you should be looking for to assess the situation and what is at stake for children in this situation. Moreover, you will have concrete actions to take that follow the steps explained, examples of behaviour to adopt and age-appropriate conversation starters. This will help you to improve your problem-solving and boundary setting skills. Remember that you and your children are problem solvers and that both could have different ways of solving problems. Take this into account while reading the case study and the story of Sam and his son Dante, for each step we will suggest a way for Sam to handle the situation and what he should avoid.
Sam has a child, Dante aged 14. He is a teenager, not talking to his parents, rather introverted and not willing to follow rules. Lately, he started going out with friends but came home late without warning his father, who is concerned because he does not know where his son goes and when he is going to come home.
1.Analyse the scene and define the problem.
Avoid: acting before knowing, as for instance scolding him, raise your voice, ignore the situation etc…
Possible solutions: Sam observes the routine and the Dante’s behaviour before and after he goes out. Sam tries to get a clear image of the situation, trying to focus not only on their concern, but also on other factors that could involve the teenager. For a clearer understanding he could ask:
”I see that you are going out in these past weeks. Can you tell me more about it?”
“I feel that here is something going on with us. Could you tell me what do you think?“
Dante reacts as usual and avoids the questions, not explaining why he is always late and not saying where he goes. But says also that he felt that something between him and his dad was at odd lately and that he likes to stay out with friends.
2.Clarify what each wants and brainstorm for solutions
Avoid: propose solutions, solve the problem on your own, exclude the children in the problem solving.
Possible solutions: Sam changes the setting of the situation, maybe asks Dante to sit on the bed or change room and go on the sofa. Sam should try to create a neutral and positive environment and should hold out for any signals of hostility and try to avoid an escalation of bad feelings. Then Sam could reply:
“Ok I see. I would like to understand with you how we can best manage this situation.”
“It would be great if we could define together how to manage the situation because I need to know where you are and when you come back. Let’s try to find a solution together. What could we do?”
Dante tries to list the possible solutions that he would like to apply to the situation, for instance sending messages because he is old enough and can stay out all night, a curfew that respects the wishes of the parent and also his necessity to stay out. However, this is not a universal technique and all children are different. If your child is not cooperative, check the techniques and tips from the other learning packages and try to apply some communication or mediation strategies from the other learning packages that would help to kick of a conversation.
3.Evaluate possible solutions and select one
Avoid: excluding from the start certain solutions based on a priori or judging the solutions.
Possible solutions: Sam helps to summarise the options provided by rephrasing the proposals, and encourages other proposals from Dante. Sam could say:
” You have made plenty of suggestions. Tell me what works best for you and I will share my suggestions too.”
“Do you remember our family rules? Is there some other way we could solve this problem?”
Dante and Sam evaluate all the options together. Maybe he proposes an option that the parents have not thought about. They could do a pros and cons list, or define a priority list, in which the most liked is moved to the top of the list and the less liked on the bottom.
4.Try out the selected options. Slightly adjust if necessary.
Avoid: adding other solutions, rejecting solutions alone or without discussion.
Possible solutions: Sam can support decisions and keep track of the excluded or approved solutions. He could say:
“Good, let’s try one of your proposals.” “What shall we do then?”
“OK, I see that you like/don’t like this option. Let’s try one of the others”
Dante and Sam choose the solution that best suits each other’s needs. They could also adjust the proposed solution, if necessary, i.e. Dante proposes to send a message when he is coming back and Sam adapts the solution to sending a message at a certain time.
5.Review the solution and give feedback
Avoid: Ignoring the follow-up, situations evolve constantly by committing to give time for feedback you make sure to have the most suitable solution for your family in place.
Possible solutions: After a while, Sam can come back to Dante and assess if the situation is changed and if that problem has been solved. He checks if the child is satisfied with the solution they adopted. Sam could say:
With more conscious efforts, everyone can apply the problem-solving approach into practice in their daily life. Ask yourself: How did we reach this decision? What kind of problem-solver am I and what kind is my child? Positive problem-solving can create happier, healthier and stronger family relationships. This approach is effective for parents to dialogue with the children to understand their feelings, find out what is happening and ask relevant questions to facilitate problem solving processes. This is an important skill for their life-long development both inside and outside the family.
Furthermore, the problem-solving approach does not only fit for parent-child relationships. Sometimes you and your partner may disagree on some topics, maybe regarding the way to raise your child. It is important to show your child that you are a team. Therefore, use your communication and problem-solving skills to identify the strategy that best suits all of your point of views in order to be on the same line when it comes to confront problem solving with your child. Teamwork will make parenting easier and will avoid misleading messages to your child.
So now, even if you do not know everything, you have done something worthwhile: you have expanded your knowledge.
- Some hints for parent goal setting that makes Better Parents (reallifecounseling.us)
- 8 Effective Parenting Goals To Make Your Life Easier (messymotherhood.com)
- How to Set (and Achieve!) Your Parenting Goals (imperfectfamilies.com)
- The Importance of Setting Parenting Goals (vbpsychology.com)
- Problem-solving for better parenting | Raising Children Network
- If you want to deepen your problem solving knowledge:
Problem Solving In Parenting – article for parenting (wordpress.com)
- If you want to improve your parenting strategies:
How Do You Teach Children To Responsibly Solve Their Own Problems?
- If you want to improve your problem-solving strategies:
10 simple Ways To Improve Your Problem Solving Skills | CMOE
- If you want some strategies to copy with your child’s behaviour
The Obnoxious Child: When an Audience Makes Behaviour Worse
- If you want to deepen your knowledge of the nine steps of solving a fight
How to Stop Arguing With Your Child: 9 Steps to Take Today
Practice your problem solving and goal setting through activities!
- Escape rooms: improving logic, intuition, collaboration, and communication.
- Dance: it has a positive impact on neural processing and neural pathways.
- Puzzles, logic games and other brain activating games: improving logic.
- The Idea Journal: improving creativity and brainstorming.
Check this example: Why the Most Successful People Keep an Idea Journal
- Use Mind Maps to improve Visualizing the Problem
Check this example for inspiration: MindMup
- Any kind of communication/decision-making/adaptability/collaborative games
- Role play: a game that consists of experimenting with or experiencing a situation or viewpoint by playing a role, improving confidence and experimenting scenarios.
Check the desert island example. This exercise challenges you to prioritise. You are stranded on an island and must decide what order to perform survival steps. It can even be turned into role play
All group members must agree on the order of the steps to ensure survival. You should explain the reasoning for the order of each step while ranking the actions.
- Find food
- Find water
- Set up shelter
- Explore the island
- Try to signal for help
- Make weapons for self-defense
- Build a raft to escape the island
- Start a fire
- Choose a group leader
- Search for other survivors
- Look for a cat
After this activity, ask yourself:
- How did we reach this decision?
- What kind of problem – solving did we use?
- Was the decision unanimous?
- What are our priorities?
- Can we find a common ground?
There are no wrong or right answers here but this game can help to strengthen decision making and goal setting as a group!