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Fact Sheet

Problem solving


Photo by: Sam Agnew

Problems are a normal part of life. You can think of them as challenges—like a puzzle to be solved—or you can think of them as burdens that you are powerless to resolve.

Your willingness and ability to solve problems has a huge effect on the way you feel, and largely determines whether or not you become frustrated, despondent or depressed. In some cases the solutions are pretty obvious—you know what you need to do to fix the problem. In other situations, the solutions are not clear and you’ll need to consider lots of possible options before you can find the best one.

When you’re confronted with a problem there are ways to deal with it.

How being faced with a problem might affect you

When you’re faced with a problem, it’s not uncommon to feel:

  • Overwhelmed;
  • Stressed or anxious;
  • Annoyed and frustrated at yourself or others;
  • Down or depressed;
  • Excited by the challenge;
  • Confused;
  • Angry;
  • Pressure or expectations from yourself or others;
  • Physically sick, including headaches or migraines;
  • Distracted, and finding it hard to concentrate;
  • Tired, especially if you’re sleeping too much or not enough

If you’re experiencing these feelings, it’s important to look after yourself. Take time out to do something that you enjoy. Even though you might not feel like it, exercising and eating well can help.

Having tools to help you make a decision can help you reach a successful outcome. If you’re finding that your feelings are affecting your day-to-day routine, it’s a good idea to talk to someone you trust. This could be someone like a friend, school or campus counselor or family member.

Focus on solutions

Working through a problem one step at a time can make you aware of lots of possible solutions. This increases your likelihood of getting what you want and helps you to feel more in control.

Sometimes it’s helpful to get ideas from other people like family members and friends, although in the end it’s up to you to decide what action to take.

Whenever you’re feeling bad, it is a good idea to ask yourself:

What is the best thing I can do to resolve this problem?

If there’s an obvious solution, then just do it. If there isn’t, you might need to take some time to sit down and brainstorm some possible options.

Remember that for most problems, it is possible to find partial or complete solutions. The challenge is to look for the best solutions and put them into practice. Also, it’s important to not act on impulse, no matter how mad or upset you are. If you act on impulse you might do something you will regret later.

Using step-by-step problem solving doesn’t always lead to perfect solutions, but it increases your likelihood of resolving the problem—partially or completely. It might also help you feel more in control of the situation.

Problem solving in eight steps

When you do something toward solving a problem, you usually feel better, even though in some situations there’s not much you can do.

Going through the steps of problem solving might be difficult at first, but will become intuitive with practice.

Step 1: Define the problem

Be specific, because vague descriptions can lead to vague solutions. Without being specific, you’ll find that a whole lot of problems are all tied in together. When this happens, try to separate the problems so you can work on each problem separately.

For example: “I hate my school” can be broken down to:

  • I get upset when people in my class make fun of me.
  • I get annoyed when Mr. Simpson picks on me.
  • I feel tired because I don’t get enough time out from studying.

These are three individual problems, which, although related to each other, are best dealt with separately.

Step 2: Work out goals for each problem

Remember the question to ask yourself is What is the best thing that I can do to resolve the problem? Try to focus on the things that you can do, rather than what you would like to happen.

For example, thinking I would like all the painful people in my class to disappear isn’t a realistic goal because it’s not within your control. However, I would like to have lunch every day with Emmy and Joe is a realistic goal because it’s more likely to be within your control. Similarly, get rid of Mr. Simpson is not a realistic goal, but work out a strategy to help me cope with Mr. Simpson without getting upset is more feasible.

Step 3: Brainstorm lots of possible solutions

Be creative! Come up with as many possible solutions as you can think of. Some of your ideas might be out there, but remember: You aren’t judging or evaluating how good or bad your solutions are at this stage.

For example, some of the possible solutions for dealing with annoying people in your class might be to:

  • Totally ignore them;
  • Be rude back to them;
  • Be nice towards them regardless of how they speak to you;
  • Talk to one or two of them and tell them how you feel;
  • Change schools
  • Speak to the principal and ask to change classes;
  • Hit them over the head with a hard object;
  • Ask your parents to contact the parents of the main culprits.

Try to come up with as many different strategies as you can think of, and don’t try to evaluate them at this point.

Step 4: Rule out any obviously poor options

Look for all the ideas on your list that are unrealistic or unlikely to be helpful and cross them out.

For example, hitting someone over the head might really hurt the person and get you in trouble. Would it really be worth it? or is it feasible to change schools and even if you did would the same problems follow you? You might also be wary of having your parents contact the other parents, feeling that that could escalate the problem. In some instances, however, the problem could be so severe that getting parents involved is the only thing that makes sense.

Step 5: Evaluate your remaining options

Now you become the judge. Go through the options that are left and write down the ”pros” and ”cons” of each.

For example, being rude back at the other students might help you let off steam (positive), but it might also make the situation more unpleasant (negative).

Being nice toward them in spite of their put-downs may make you feel frustrated (negative) but it might change the way some of them respond to you (positive).

Explaining to the others that you don’t like the way they are treating you might make you feel embarrassed (negative) but at least they will know how you feel (positive).

Or ignoring them might be really hard to do and some people find this doesn’t work very well. But if you do it successfully - meaning really ignore them, it might help you feel more empowered (positive).

Step 6: Identify your best options

Once you’ve considered the positives and negatives for each possible solution, it’s time to make a decision. Go through the options and pick out the ones that seem the most practical and potentially helpful.

There may be one option that stands out as better than the others. If there are a few possible solutions, you might be able to implement all of them. For instance, with the above example, you might decide to talk to the people who are hassling you and explain how you feel and what you want. If it happens again, you might then decide to go to your advisor or counselor to discuss the problem and perhaps ask to change classes.

Step 7: Implement the best options

Now it’s time to put your ideas into practice. For example, you might approach one of the girls in your class who makes nasty comments about you and use an “I-statement” to tell her how you feel and what you would like. For example, try saying ”Making jokes about me in front of the class upsets me. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t speak about me in that way.”

You might even write down the things that you plan to say so that you have it clear in your mind. If this doesn’t work, your next action might be to go to your teacher or counselor to talk to him or her about the problem. Again, you can write down in advance what you plan to say.

Step 8: How did it go?

The last step is to review how things went. So you tried it out—what happened? Did it solve the problem, or do you need to try another approach? If your current approach worked, then that’s all you need to do. But, if you didn’t get what you wanted, then it’s usually helpful to try a different approach.

What if you can’t fix the problem?

Although problem solving usually helps us find solutions, in some situations, despite our best efforts, we still can’t fix the problem. If you’ve tried a number of strategies and none of them have worked, it may be time to focus on coping strategies. Check out the Developing coping strategies fact sheet for more info.

Try it out

Is there a situation that you don’t like? If you can change it, try working through the steps towards finding a solution to your problem. If not, see how you feel after trying to cope with the situation. What can you say to yourself to accept the situation? What sorts of things can you do to get on with your life in a positive way, in spite of the situation?

Remember that problems are a normal part of life, and that we usually feel better when we do something constructive toward resolving our problems rather than just dwelling on them.

It’s often helpful to go through step-by-step problem solving, using the eight steps described. But, if you can’t solve the problem, it can be helpful to change the way you think about it by practicing acceptance, and moving on with life in a positive way.

This fact sheet comes from:

Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions
by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences, 2005

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