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Whose problem is it — resolving conflict


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Deciding who "owns" problems is a very helpful starting place for resolving conflicts and developing cooperation.

  • If siblings want the same toy, whose problem is that?
  • If your child makes a mess, whose problem is that?
  • If your child is not doing what the teacher says, whose problem is that?

If we parents solve problems for our children, we do not let them grow in learning how to resolve their own problems. One key is to ask, whose problem is it, or who "owns" the problem.

If siblings want the same toy, that is their problem, and they need to learn to negotiate so they resolve the problem without any sibling being hurt. But if one sibling asks you to intercede, what then? Encourage that child to return to siblings to work out the problem. The parent will want to monitor that they are negotiating, and may offer some tips for negotiating. The parent may want to be visible at first, but soon monitor at a distance. For us parents, the critical question is: are the siblings learning to resolve and negotiate their own problems?

But many of us parents want to take care of our children; we want to solve their problems. But if we do, then what are our children learning? How will they take care of themselves when we are not around at play grounds? Who will stand up for them? Do we want our children to be dependent or to learn to think and act for themselves?

A mother talking with her friend told how her teen daughter asked for help with the credit card bill she accumulated that she could not handle. The mother said she paid it off for her daughter. What did the daughter learn? Whose problem was that bill — who "owned it"? What other ways could a parent respond? What responses would have the daughter sharing in resolving the debt?

A more complicated problem is when your child is not doing well in school. A parent in one of my groups was a teacher in middle school, and her own daughter was a student in that school. A teacher of her daughter told her parent and fellow teacher that the daughter’s grades were dropping, because she wasn't doing her work. The mother said that this was her daughter’s problem; the teacher should treat her as she did any student. After several weeks the daughter’s grades picked up. Her daughter may have learned that this is a cause-effect world.

This is a hard problem for us parents. We want to help our children with homework; we don't want them to flunk. But what is the child learning? We will talk to teachers when there is a problem with our child. But we must carefully decide for each situation whether this is our problem as a parent, or the child’s problem, so the child will mature by learning to tackle the problem. Coach your child how to resolve it, encourage your child, but do not take over tackling their problems.


Pause to check out the parent’s response to her child’s middle school work. Think about it, or if you are working with another parent, compare each other’s views of whose problem it is, who should learn to resolve it, and what is the parent’s responsibility. Consider the same questions about paying off the credit card bill.

There are many ways you can help your children work on their problems. When my daughter had to memorize multiplication tables, I programmed my calculator so it helped her memorize those tables. Each day when I came home from work, she wanted the calculator, and she would be on her bed or on the floor punching away at the calculator buttons. Before long she had mastered multiplication. I provided a means for her to solve her problem, and enjoy doing it.

 Here is another short conversation. Consider whose problem this is, and how to handle it.


Does the youngster own this problem? Does she want a parent to go to bat for her? Clarify issues, such as did she tell the boss early enough so he could juggle schedules or get a substitute? If you work alone, jot down alternative thoughts and reactions. If you work with another, compare many views and reactions. Take the time to explore alternatives. Evaluate alternatives from the child's view as well as the parent's.

Here is a problem with teens:


When a car is involved, that involves other people, and your teen's attitudes and behavior. How many ways can you constructively help this teen? Evaluate alternatives.

In order to ask whose problem it is, or who owns the problem, be sure:

  • Children are able to discuss problems with you and learn give-and-take to negotiate or work out a solution.
  • Think about your own rights, and are you and your rights being respected?
  • Take steps so no child is hurt.

When your children's behavior causes you a problem, then you the parent have a problem — you own the problem. In some situations, you and your child both may have the same problem. If your child’s behavior causes another adult to confront you, then you have the problem as the parent to work out a solution with the other adult, but then you must see that your child confronts the child's part of the problem.


Think back over problems you had with your children recently. Analyze how you can use this tactic of who owns the problem to resolve some of the problems, and at the same time help your child to be more responsible.

Power struggles
Conflict between a parent and a child can become a power struggle. If a child won’t do something or eat a food, and the parent demands it, the child may feel honor bound to take a stand. The parent often escalates, feeling authority and control are at stake. What does the child learn? That bullying wins. And they question the care and concern of that parent. Sometimes a child will try to win sympathy from the other parent to turn the parents against each other. So, however it comes out, children usually feel they have stood up for their independence, and the parent got ahead by size or force or bullying.

What are alternatives? Ask whether the action or food is that important. Are there reasons for the child’s stand? What does the child want to gain by making a stand, and should we help them find an alternative way to satisfy that need? If you will think about it, once a power struggle begins, the parent generally already has lost. Some power struggles are inevitable, but be sure they are about something vital rather than eating tomatoes.

Review this section to explore who "owns" problems and how that helps to resolve them.

Resolving conflicts
Conflicts are inevitable. Conflicts are healthy, because problems are out in the open so we can confront them and work on them. The best way to work on differences and conflicts is to work together to find common ground.

You can force an issue, claiming, for example, that as a parent you are wiser or more thoughtful. An example is insisting on your child wearing a coat. But so far as she is assertive and creative, she may when forced to wear a coat, do it her way as soon as she is out of sight — take it off. On the other hand, if you negotiate, you may work out a solution acceptable to both of you. One example is selecting a different coat, which lets her assert herself.

Instead of asserting parental authority, recognize that you and your child are both stakeholders in the final decision. Using the example of wearing a coat, you both have common ground — stay warm, dry, and healthy. Express your concern about the weather, and ask your child to offer suggestions. You can say you are wearing a coat. You can suggest selecting a coat. If needed, you can remind your child of the last experience of being miserable with a cold and fever.

Treat your child as you do a co-worker with whom you differ, but that like you is a stakeholder in an appropriate and mutually acceptable solution.

One-with-one time
Perhaps the most important parenting you can do is to spend time with each child, more than once a month, doing what that child wants to do. The activity is less important than your talking together, listening, sharing in what your child wants to do at that time. You learn as you listen and play. This can be a time of discovery as you focus attention on one child. Burton L. White, a Harvard educational psychologist, says, "The key seems to be the time that attentive, responsive parents spend with their children – parents who are on hand and enthusiastic, whether their youngsters want help, comfort, or simply a chance to share discoveries."

Focus entirely on this child of yours, deepening your bonding to each other regularly.


Copyright © 2004, 2005 John F. Yeaman