Recently, I listened to a podcast with the writer Caitlin Moran who spoke about some of the difficulties of parenting teenagers. She said that when they were younger, her daughters sought her help directly but things have changed as they’ve grown older. Now, they need her to be a springboard to bounce their own ideas off, and for her to affirm the solutions they come up with independently. Caitlin mentioned her daughter’s dilemma – wanting to go and hang out with a friend but knowing she had homework due – to which she asked her daughter what she thought could be the solution. Her daughter ended up taking her homework to her friend’s house to do together. This solution-focused approach is actually really helpful for teens (and their parents!). There will always be problems, so finding effective solutions is the key to success.
So what is solution-focused thinking? In short, it’s an action-orientated approach designed to get people to implement change themselves. How? By tuning into your inner strengths, resources and abilities to find solutions to the problems you’re experiencing, you learn to trust yourself. As this approach is geared around behaviour change, once you begin to see the positive results you’ve brought about yourself, you feel empowered. This, in turn, improves resilience. Once you’re on this upward spiral of greater confidence and resilience, the more your positive outlook and productive behaviours become further embedded.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Taking a solution-focused approach to problem-solving can work for most people in most situations, but the approach itself grew out of the work of two American social workers in the 1970s. Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg reviewed thousands of hours of recorded therapy sessions, cherry-picking everything that had a positive impact on the client’s thoughts and behaviours, and then incorporating these into their Solution-Focused Therapy. The process disregards some of the more traditional therapeutic methods such as exploring what has happened in the past. Instead, de Shazer and Berg believed that focusing on the present and the future was less complex and more productive. A relief for any parents also thinking about trying a solution-focused approach with their kids, no doubt!
Solution-focused thinking has several key features. Part of its strength lies in how it showcases competences and strengths. Sometimes these can get forgotten in the daily grind, and it’s important to keep coming back to what’s positive. The solution-focused approach looks to the future, as thinking about what you want life to look like gives you hope and direction. Within solution-focused conversations, you’ll find that the questions asked are designed to elicit what you’re already doing that’s useful, reinforcing those inner strengths and competences. Another element of taking a solution-focused approach is that it highlights change. Often, we believe that whatever’s happened before is always going to happen, but highlighting what’s different about a particular scenario reminds us that every situation has the potential for change and for success. And the solution-focused approach also builds an expectation of a good outcome. Yes – things could go wrong. But they could also go right! For example, if a teen had experienced a scam when trying to buy something online, they might begin to believe everyone trading on the internet is untrustworthy. Having a conversation in the family and among friends about what transactions have gone smoothly will start to refocus the teen’s belief that things going wrong are the exception rather than the norm, and that they can expect a successful outcome in the future.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
Being a teenager can be really challenging (and even more so when living through a pandemic). Teens often struggle with low self esteem and feelings of hopelessness. But while they may get a bad rap, teenagers often have greater strengths and resources than they’re given credit for. And the teen years are a time of life ripe for experimentation. It’s a great opportunity to get them thinking differently, trying new things and feeling empowered by their choices. One study concluded that solution-focused counselling ‘assisted adolescents in discovering and developing their knowledge and awareness of their personal strengths and resources; [and] encouraged adolescents to feel empowered to act upon these resources, therefore enhancing self-efficacy’. Who wouldn’t want that for their teen?
So how do you parent teens using a solution-focused approach? The reality is that there will always be problems – with peers, at school, with family – and finding effective solutions is the key to success. The trick is to get your kids focusing not on the problem but on possible ways to solve the problem. You might already be doing some of this naturally, such as asking questions. This in itself can get them thinking differently and exploring alternatives – the first step to solution-focused thinking. Listening carefully to what they say back to you will give you a deeper understanding of your teen’s strengths, skills, talents, competencies and abilities. Once you’ve truly heard what they’ve said to you, find ways to reflect this back to them and try to shift the focus towards solutions. Use their answers to identify what they are already doing that is working well and keep reminding them of this. And make sure you ask them about their future hopes and dreams, which sets them on a path to achieving their goals.
For some teens, asking direct questions may be more of a challenge. There are ways around this. One example could be to initiate conversations over the dinner table. Asking the whole family the same questions can make your teen feel less under the spotlight. If you can’t think of what to ask, you can simply ask everyone about their day. If that still feels too direct, try asking everyone around the table to tell you their ‘roses’ and ‘thorns’ of the day – what went well and what didn’t go so well. Follow up your teenager’s answer by reflecting back what sounded positive or useful, and where their natural strengths lie or where they’ve obviously tried hard.
If your teen has come to you with a particular problem they want your help in solving, you might notice that they’ve magnified the problem, making it larger than it actually is. In this situation, it can be helpful to break possible solutions down into manageable chunks, while reframing your language can help to shift the focus away from the problem and towards a solution. This can be as easy as asking “What do you think we should do?”. When they come up with solutions, reflect back to them how clever they are and how they’ve got this – questions and compliments really are the main tools for a productive solution-focused conversation.
Sometimes problems are too tricky to solve in one conversation. If your teen hits a brick wall with their conundrum, suggest taking a break. A bit of time out to do something different can work wonders. It’s a bit like when you’re trying to crack a difficult crossword clue – staring at it for ages never works, does it? But if you go outside to hang the washing out, chances are – eureka! – the answer pops into your head.
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics of this approach, you could try bringing in a few more solution-based thinking techniques. The first is a simple way to keep generating more conversation with your teen using two simple questions: ‘What else?’ and ‘Why is that working?’. The first question invites your teenager to ensure they are exploring their issue from all angles, thoroughly interrogating the scenario in order to have all the information they need to figure out the solution. The second question looks at what they’re already doing successfully, which reinforces those feelings of agency and resilience.
Next up, The Miracle Question. This is a way of imagining what life will be like when the problem is solved. Ask your teen to think of a current issue or problem they’re facing. Ask them: ‘If a miracle happened in the night and your problem was solved while you were sleeping, what would be the first thing you’d notice when you woke up that let you know the problem was gone?’. Often, people respond to this question by saying they don’t know, and it’s tempting to rush in with suggestions. But try to leave some space for you both to ponder awhile. You’ll probably find that your teenager might be slow to get going but then get into the flow of things. After every reply they give to what they would notice about a problem-free day, ask what else they notice. Keep going with this line of questioning until you’ve both exhausted all the options. The goal is to envisage a future without the problem, in order to have something to work towards.
If your teenager enjoys writing or journaling, you can encourage them to list out the ways in which they are resourced. The point of this exercise is to underline how competent and supported they are, in order that they feel empowered but also that they have the capacity to solve whatever problem they may be facing. Examples of internal resources are sense of humour, determination, patience etc (all their skills and qualities, essentially), while examples of external resources include friends, pets, places, hobbies. Again, it’s a gentle yet powerful way to reinforce a narrative that your teen already has everything they need to solve their problems.
ALL IN THE PAST
Finally, a technique that focuses on past experiences can be really useful in reminding your teen that they’ve always come though tricky situations in their lives so far, and that this will be true again. There are several ways you can approach this, all of which rely on asking about times that the problem didn’toccur. For example, say your teen is worried about getting good grades at school. Begin by asking them about a time when they’d worried about the same thing and it turned out not to be justified. Ask them to elaborate on what they experienced after their marked work came back, and to focus on what work they had done to achieve this. We never have the exact same experience twice, so when we focus on the times that have been positive, we remind ourselves that things go right as well as wrong.
Another way in is to ask your teen to pinpoint exactly what was different about the times they’ve been successful in finding solutions. A simple ‘how did you do that?’ can sometimes be enough, and it reinforces the idea that they have the resources inside to succeed again. It also allows them to take credit for having made something happen, which is very powerful.
Leading on from this, you can suggest to your teen that they not only can do these things, but that you’re helping them set the scene for when they will do so again. When you’re wording your questions to your teen, take it for granted that a positive outcome will happen. For example, when you’re discussing their fears around their grades, you could ask ‘when you get your grades back, how are you going to celebrate your success?’, which pre-supposes that they will achieve what they’re aiming for. In contrast, if you ask ‘have you thought about what you’ll do if you don’t get your grades?’ this concedes that success may not happen and makes room for negativity.
NO GO ZONE
You should now have a bit more of an idea of how to use solution-focused thinking with your young person, but also keep in mind what to avoid. Trying to understand the detail of whatever they’re experiencing is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, unhelpful. Digging around in the detail only keeps them there when you could be taking them somewhere more productive. Likewise, it’s really hard not to but avoid trying to formulate solutions for them. Chances are, you could add to the problem, but more importantly this is about getting teens to find their own solutions. And while you may disagree with what they’re doing and why, this is not about getting your teen to change their behaviour – this is about how we think not what we do. Keep things light and curious, and steer clear of criticism. Finally, avoid adding to or embellishing your teen’s description of what’s happening. Instead, keep coming back to the questions and compliments that are at the heart of this approach.
Of course, it’s not just the teens in our lives that can get fixated by problems and bogged down in negativity. Try taking a solution-focused approach with every Negative Ned or Debbie Downer that crosses your path, and see what happens.
If you need some support, as a parent or teen, to see the positives, to achieve calmness and confidence please reach out – I would genuinely love to help.
Laura Jane Hypnotherapy
Solution Focused Hypnotherapist
07807936080 | email@example.com