social problem solving
McKinzie Duesenberg

Teaching Social Problem Solving to Your Child

social problem solving
McKinzie Duesenberg

Teaching Social Problem Solving to Your Child

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Social problem solving is figuring out how to handle problems in social situations.  Sometimes, children have trouble handling tough situations. They might get upset when they can’t have the toy they want or must share it with friends or siblings. It can be hard for children to know what to do in these situations. As a parent, you can teach your child how to handle these tough moments by helping them learn how to solve problems! This is called social problem solving.


What Is Social Problem Solving?

Social problem solving is an important skill that children use every day. It is the process of figuring out how to handle problems in social situations. It means thinking about other people’s feelings and the best way to solve a problem. This skill helps children get along with others and build relationships. Studies have shown that kids who learn to solve problems do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems. It can also help them think more clearly (critical thinking) and understand other people. With practice, your child will be able to handle these tough situations on their own and learn how to make good choices!


The Process

The social problem solving process follows three steps: identification, analysis, and resolution. To teach your child social problem solving, you first need to teach them the problem-solving process.

Table 1: Problem Solving Process

  Stage Example


Identification: What is the problem? I don’t want to share my toy with my sister.


Analysis: What is happening in this situation? How do others’ feel? How do I feel? What can I do to fix this problem? My sister wants to play with me. She might feel sad if I don’t share. But I am upset that I have to share.

I could:

  • Ask her if she could please play with a different toy.
  • Give her the toy and play with something else.
  • Take turns playing with the toy.

Resolution: Try it out! How did I fix my problem? Did it work? What could I do better? I will take turns playing with the toy. My sister is happy now, and I like to play with my sister. Next time, instead of saying “NO!” first, I will think about it.


Remember: Your child cannot enter the Analysis or Resolution stage without having the skills to Identify or understand what is causing their problem. You focus on Identification by talking about their feelings, looking at the situation around them, and asking guided questions. This will help them organize their thoughts, think more clearly, and help them think of solutions (for more on how organized thinking and problem-solving can help your child, read Raising an Organized Child: 5 Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration, and Promote Confidence by Damon Korb, MD, FAAP).


Three Problem Solving Steps

Children develop at different paces. But you can teach these three social problem solving steps in ways that are appropriate for their age. The CDC has some goals for kids of different ages to make sure kids are learning the right social and emotional skills to be successful at school, at home, and in the community. Depending on where your child is at developmentally, try to build in activities (see below) that focus on the three steps in problem-solving in your everyday routines!

Table 2: Problem Solving Steps

Age CDC Developmental Goal Social Problem-Solving Practice
2 yrs
  • Notices when others are hurt or upset (pausing or looking sad when someone is crying)
  • Looking at others’ faces to see how to react in a new situation
  • Identify facial expressions on self and others using a mirror
  • Label emotions in others, animals, or objects through books
3 yrs
  • Notices other children and joins them in play
  • Practice turn-taking (rolling a ball back and forth, blowing bubbles) and explain turn-taking while doing it
  • Say “please” and “thank you” when asking to join play to model appropriate behavior
  • Role play acting out play scenarios using stuffed animals
  • Use “solution cards” so that a child can select an appropriate solution to match the problem
4 yrs
  • Comforts others who are hurt or sad
  • Changes behavior based on where they are (e.g., library vs. playground)
  • Engage in role-playing situations that involve peer conflict and how to appropriately comfort others (e.g., asking “can I give you a hug?”, or “Are you okay?”)
  • Review social stories of how to act in different environments and with different people (e.g., at home vs. at school, with sibling vs. friend)
  • Practice communicating feelings (e.g., “I feel [sad] when [I am not first in line]”).
5 yrs
  • Follow rules and take turns when playing games with other children
  • Teach your child how to apologize and navigate disagreements when they are playing with others (e.g., sometimes friends don’t always agree, and it is okay to disagree respectfully)
  • Discuss and model empathy (e.g., “How might [friend] feel?)
  • Continue to practice social problem-solving skills and have your child discuss why they chose the solution they did to encourage them to be reflective of their decisions.


Differences in Using Social Problem Solving

Children use social problem solving in different ways. For example, when they play with friends, they might need to figure out how to share toys, take turns, read other people’s emotions, and follow the rules. As children get older, they can use these skills in more complex situations, like when they have a problem with a friend or an adult or even when they are working on schoolwork!

It’s important to practice these skills across different situations. To help them practice, you can act out different situations with them, show them how you solve problems, and even help them think about how well they solved the problem. This way, they can learn how to solve problems in different situations and get better at them.


About the Author

McKinzie is a pre-doctoral school psychologist intern at Livingston County Special Services Unit. Throughout her graduate career, she has co-authored several articles related to academic achievement and autism. She is extremely passionate about academic achievement and autism-related services, as early assessment and intervention are key in early childhood. She has found that parents sometimes have concerns regarding delayed play or learning skills but may not know the right questions to ask to support their children. She wants to empower parents with the knowledge and skills to support and advocate for their children.

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