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Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to be an 'expert' problem-solver: 3 tips

Some of you may have read this recent post by An Honest Mom, in which she very kindly refers to me as an 'expert' after I gave her some advice about her child's problems at daycare.

Well, you know, that got me thinking, because 'expert' is a word that I would usually associate with having lots of degrees in a certain field of learning, a very high profile amongst one's colleagues and possibly a bit of media coverage... hmm, this doesn't sound like me! I mean, it's not like I've got a Masters in Early Childhood or write a regular column for Rattler Magazine or anything. 

Sure, I've spent a lot of time with children. So have a lot of other people, and some of them would give advice that makes your skin crawl. So it's not just about my experience.

And that made me think that if I can develop some expertise without impressive pieces of paper and world-wide kudos, maybe it's not beyond you to become an 'expert' in dealing with your child's problems. I started to break down what it is that's made me a source of expertise. Maybe if you follow in my footsteps, you can empower yourself as a problem-solver.

1. My first advantage in achieving 'expertise' about children is that I have a memory like an elephant. I can actually remember what it was like to be a child.

I can remember what it felt like when people said negative things about me over the top of my head, as though I was deaf or stupid, and how it made me doubt myself. I can remember being compared unfavourably to my brother by my piano teacher, and how it affected my playing. I remember the emotional pain of being bullied, and what helped me to survive that. 

I can remember how it felt to be encouraged, and to have my opinions respected. I remember the joy of finding a supportive teacher in front of my class, and I recall much of what that teacher did to help me. I remember the joy of finally being heard when my parents bought me the guitar that I'd craved, despite it not fitting in with their own music preferences- finally, they acknowledged that I was not them.

I apply all that remembering to everything I say in this blog. 

And so I exhort you to sit down quietly by yourself and remember your childhood, warts and all. What happened to you, and how did you feel about it? Were you anything less than a human being, with certain rights? Did you overhear things that hurt you? Did your parents' and teachers' discipline strategies change your internal morality for the better, or were you just compliant because you were afraid? And so on.

What pitfalls can you avoid? What dignity can you provide for your children, that you would have liked to have for yourself? Are you being 'just like your mother', and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Travel back in time, and really let yourself feel your childhood.

This is how I put myself in a child's shoes when I'm asked to help with a problem- by remembering. You can do that too. Remembering stops me from acting superior, just on the basis of age and size and experience. I might know more than a child, but I don't feel more. 

Hold that thought.

2. Another thing that helps me to be an 'expert' is my genuine interest in children. Because I'm interested in them, I find it very easy to be totally present for them for a decent part of each day. When I'm with children, I don't actually want to be on my computer or my mobile phone, because I have allowed these small but complete human beings to engage my brain and my heart- and that's actually more fun and more uplifting than anything I could do by text message or online. I acknowledge that I have something of a technology addiction, and that I enjoy that addiction very much. BUT I can put it aside in the presence of children, and pick it up again in my own time.

Nurture that interest in your own child. Yes, children can be VERY wearing, but if you look away for too long you'll lose the connection. You too can put down the distractions if you choose, and look into your child's eyes with genuine interest and love. You too can engage with them on an authentic level, where you tell them how you really feel and what you really think using your normal tone of voice. 

And because children copy what's modelled to them, you too can then reap the reward of your child being completely honest with you most of the time (which is half the battle when it comes to trouble-shooting) and telling you what they really think and feel. Having a child who shares with you makes it SO much easier to be an expert on what makes them tick. Children recognise when someone's being real and when they're being fake. I remember that from my childhood- do you?

If we spend a lot of our time running away from engagement with our children, whether through a strict extra-curricular schedule or through time-wasting on our iPhones or through any one of the numerous barriers we can put up against intimacy when we're overwhelmed, we'll never be experts. We must engage, even when it's difficult or we're not in the mood. I find that when I hide my feelings or hide what's really happening from the children I care for, that's when I get into trouble. When we relieve ourselves of that burden of pretence and give our children some credit for resilience, it all becomes easier. (Of course, we must choose our words carefully and age-appropriately, but we must speak the truth!)

NB: To be an 'expert', we must also schedule some time out for ourselves, because nobody can engage ALL the time. We must reasonable with ourselves and give ourselves rights to recreation and recovery time. If we half-engage all the time, we'll never be experts- and we'll never get the relief we crave, either. We'll just end up crabby, exhausted and resentful. A decent dose of full-on engagement each day, plus at least some full-on respite- that's the goal.

3. The last thing that helps me to be an 'expert' is my ability to see problems visually. That might surprise you if you've identified me as an intellectual and deep thinker. I am a visual learner, and at times I've even resorted to brainstorming and drawing pictures to sort out situations that seemed overwhelming.

Brainstorming a problem and writing down everything that's happening around that problem can be so enlightening. Many years ago when I was having problems in a new relationship, when 'talking it out' and positivity hadn't helped and I was in grave danger of becoming overwhelmed, I started brainstorming the situation with a list of what was happening in our lives. It looked something like this:

trouble at work - our careers under threat?
fights at home nearly every night
disagreements about parenting
fights about your drinking
saying hurtful things to me when you're drunk
ex-partners (both)- divorce/separation
your court case with builder
my mother's death- my sadness / need
you don't like yourself?
I just want to be loved 

The list didn't help me much. It was still overwhelming.

But then, because I'm a visual type of person, I started to draw how those things interacted. Look, I'm not trying to be an artist when I'm solving problems. I just want to join some dots and see how things relate to one another. Stick figures rule, ok? 

I drew my partner. I drew me. And then I drew the forces at work on us, until the real problem became clear. 

It took me a few goes. This is something like what I ended up with, from memory:

Can you see the problem? I could, once I drew the picture. That person wasn't ready for a relationship until they could deal with their own problems without the haze of alcohol. The bottle was preventing us from resolving anything; it was like a brick wall that I kept trying to go around and over- but my new partner was having a relationship with the brick wall, not with me.

These days I seem to have given so much advice to so many people that I can do the sorting and picture-drawing in my head, but I'd suggest that writing down ALL the factors is a very good first step to problem solving. Don't just write down what you think is relevant to your own main issue. Write down all the things that are happening around your child. Try to arrange them in different ways, join some dots, and see if you can work out how things are interacting to cause the problem.

Don't censor your list. For example, if you're fighting with your partner after your child's bedtime, take yourself back to your own bed when you were a child, and listen to the fighting through the wall. Remember the times when you were small, when you were aware that something was wrong but nobody would tell you what was going on. How did you feel? How does your child feel? What unexplained changes are impacting on your child?

Maybe you don't know enough about the problem yet. Engage with your child. What can you find out by being authentic and sharing your own feelings and thoughts, then listening attentively?

This approach isn't a magic formula. Of course, my many years working with children give me some understandings that the average parent may not be able to access. Of course, when you're feeling overwhelmed it's good to ask for help. Of course, some problems need expert intervention.

But if you can implement some of these strategies, it will strengthen your bond with your child and it will help you to feel empowered instead of helpless. Those things in themselves can solve some problems. 

Making lists and doing drawings will also give you some excellent preparatory material to take with you, if you do eventually need to consult an expert. It's very hard to remember all the factors in a problem when you're paying by the minute. It's even hard to include all the relevant factors in a Facebook message if you haven't thought about it first.

Oh, and just because I wrote this post doesn't mean I won't help you any more. You can still ask Aunt Annie! 


  1. Wow! I have a counselling appointment - I'm going to try to take a drawing along. What a fantastic idea!

    1. Excellent! It certainly can speed up the process if you do- my ex-partner took the picture I tried to reproduce in this post to a counselling appointment and it saved a LOT of time.

  2. This would be a great idea! Thanks.


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