Problem-solving and Asking for Help

The closure of schools and businesses due to COVID-19 has created upheaval for most families. If you have children between the ages of 10 and 14 you know that keeping them occupied and content can be challenging. By following this series, you will discover ideas and activities you can do with your rising teenager that are fun, increase resilience in youth, and build strong relationships in your family.

Problem-solving is a skill that takes time and nurturance to develop. It means thinking critically, drawing from past experiences, and projecting ahead to determine what is the best course of action. Unfortunately, this is a function that takes place in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, and for young teens, this part is still under construction. Fortunately, parents and adults are major influences on this process. Playing problem-solving games is a great strategy for helping young people exercise their decision-making and problem-solving muscles so that the process becomes easier as they face more choices down the road. Here is a game you can play with your young teen while waiting, driving, or simply when there is nothing to do.

Have a list of questions prepared or write them on index cards such as

  • What would you do if you got a flat tire on your bike on your way home from your friend’s house?
  • What would you do if you brought the wrong book home the night before a test?
  • What would you do if you overslept and missed your ride to school?
  • What would you do if someone in front of you dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the floor?
  • What would you do if…? (make up your own scenarios)?

To extend the conversation, ask your child open-ended questions such as

  1. What else might you try?
  2. If that doesn’t work, then what would you do?
  3. What other options do you have?
  4. What are all the possible outcomes of each option?
  5. Who could you ask to help you with that?

Keep the focus on the problem-solving process rather than coming up with a “right” answer. Helping young teens to brainstorm solutions to challenges encourages them to think creatively and realize that they have control over their decisions and choices. They also learn that sometimes they will need to ask for help. Asking for help is not only good, but it is also a sign of strength.

Once you are comfortable going through this process, you can use this same activity to begin talking with your child about peer pressure. Scale up the situations to ones that they may encounter in their teen years such as how they might handle their best friend wanting them to smoke, try alcohol, or do something that they feel is wrong. Having these skills in place before they are needed helps young teens to be less likely to succumb to peer pressure or make impulsive decisions when solving a problem.

This article was originally published as part of the BeTWEEN Families series on Penn State Extension.

This activity has been adopted from Iowa State University’s Strengthening Families for Parents and Youth 10-14 (SFP 10-14) curriculum. SFP 10-14 is a multi-session family series that builds family cohesion and has been proven to reduce substance use in youth offered in many PROSPER communities. There are PROSPER partners in many communities across Pennsylvania. Search for a PROSPER community near you to find and sign up for a local SFP 10-14.

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