What is the Size of Your Problem? (Problem-solving for kids)

Middle brother got really upset and whiny yesterday when he was told to wait to go swimming. He took awhile to calm down. In the evening, I drew this on the doors of our wardrobe and did some problem-solving and brainstorming with them.

What is the size of your problem?

When I asked him to identify where on the scale to place the size of the problem, he could rightly identify it as a small problem. When I asked where was the size of his reaction (a bit of crying and whining), he identified it as level 6 on the scale.

Then I asked, “Is the size of your reaction proportionate to the size of your problem?” Where should your reaction ideally be? He thought a bit and said, “it should be lower – maybe 1 or 2.”

I said, “Yes! That’s great! You can see that the size of your reaction should be lower on the scale.”

This is the second time I’m going through this concept with the kids so he’s had some prior understanding of it. On the first occasion, I identified what a level 1 problem looks like, for instance losing a toy or dropping a spoon. While someone falling into the pool would qualify as a level 10 problem : where there is real and imminent danger. As for reaction, kicking, screaming or hitting would be level 9/10, while frowning or sulking would be level 1. In the middle could be whining or crying.

Then I moved on to get them to think of ways that we could battle with the emotions of feeling frustrated and impatient at having to wait. So the next time he would have some strategies or ideas.

The kids came up with:
1) not whine
2) think about something you can do now
3) look at the schedule for ideas on what to do
4) don’t get stuck
5) think of a game to play (I contributed this one)

Essentially, these strategies/ideas are meant to help distract the child from his frustrations of the moment. (Tip: While brainstorming, it’s helpful to list down every idea that the child contributes and not throw them out just yet.)

I picked up this concept from a recent Social Thinking conference I attended. I learnt a few useful things in relation to parenting and helping kids with social / learning difficulties. This was one social tool that I immediately related to and started to apply at home.

I think it’s extremely useful in helping kids think about their reactions. Here are some lessons you can point out to your child while applying this “size of your problem” tool.

  1. We always have a choice on how we act and behave – Our goal is to choose to behave in ways that are more acceptable and in line with the problem or situation.
  2. Our reactions should continue to move down the scale as we grow older and more mature, even though our problems may get larger and more challenging.
  3. Our reaction has an effect on others – When we react at level 9/10 on a daily basis, we regularly cause small problems to become BIG HUGE problems. Other people are affected by it and may start to have negative feelings about you. If they continue to react at such high levels when small problems occur, it also causes a lot of stress to their family and carers.

Now all this may take a while to sink in and translate into real self-regulation and social consideration for others, but it’s definitely a good and helpful framework to introduce such social concepts to them early.

Whenever we meet with certain issues, I would stop and ask out loud “hmm, what is the size of this problem?” This gives the kids a chance to think and self-monitor, and measure their reactions accordingly.

Note that it may not work if the kids are already emotionally strung or in the middle of a wild tantrum, but I’ve seen it work when they are just at the beginning stages of a negative emotion.

Even for myself, when I mess up and over react, it gives me a chance to laugh at myself, and point out how I over reacted to a small problem. It has helped me to breathe and calm down, and not have big reactions to little things like a kiddo dropping his plate of food on the floor.

This is something I’ll continue to work on with my kids. It’s not just teaching them self-awareness, it’s also imparting the skill of problem-solving. And when they have the right attitude towards solving the little problems that crop up in daily life, I believe they’ll also be better big problem-solvers in future, be it handling school-stress, relationships, or even work.

Do try this at home! And let me know how it works out for you too. ūüėČ

Here’s a shot of the size of your problem poster available from Social Thinking’s Singapore website.







Angry feelings and tantrum behaviour? Try playing coach.

I mentioned a couple of days after JJ turned three that he had progressed many steps from his tantrum spewing days.

Well, he recently seems to have taken a few steps back. We’ve been hearing a lot of whining and crying of late, often for little reason. Sometimes he would even wake up in a fit.

Naturally my first response was to blame myself and ask,¬†what am I doing wrong? But after thinking¬†it through a bit more, and asking God for wisdom and patience, I’ve been able to move from that self-defeating mode to something more productive. I’m now asking these questions:

Why is he doing what he is doing?

What need is he expressing through such negative behaviour?

How can I help him?

It was really frustrating at the start, especially since we couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, and so didn’t know how we should tackle it. Was it insecurity because we weren’t spending enough one-on-one time with him? Was it just yet another new (and challenging) phase he was going through? Honestly, we don’t have all the answers…

It took all we had to stay cool. Hubby and I had to tag-team and call for¬†time out whenever one of us were on the brink of losing it. Thankfully, however, after being firm with him, and asking if he needed the calm down chair, he would generally try¬†to simmer down somewhat and respond with a “I stop already” (in reference to his crying and screaming.)

There was one episode last week when he dropped his lego onto the floor, and was starting to throw a fit, exclaiming that he needed someone to pick them up for him. I went to stoop beside him, and said in as calm a voice as I could muster, “JJ, you can pick up the pieces yourself. Try it.” He then responded in a whiny voice, “I want mummy to stay with me.” So I did. And he picked up the pieces by himself, with me beside him and giving him a bit of encouragement here and there.

After he was done, I was like, “hi-five, buddy!” And he actually smiled and gave me a hi-five. (And then walked away as if nothing major had happened. Sigh…)

I pondered over what happened and realised¬†that he has been anxious about being alone / left behind, and often expresses that he wants us to wait for him.¬†Something must be making him feel like he’s being left behind (perhaps one reason is because he isn’t as fast and competent as his older sister is.)

According to this article¬†Helping Children Deal with Angry Feelings,¬†when ¬†children are angry, they need someone to set clear and firm boundaries for them. For instance, using words to express their emotions is acceptable while¬†lashing out and biting or throwing things at others, aren’t.

This part, I think he’s managed to learn. He’s been expressing his anger using words, albeit quite comically. When upset at someone or something, he would exclaim loudly with his eyebrows knitted together, “I don’t like anybody anymore!” or “I don’t want to play with anybody FOREVER!” (Now obviously it takes every strand of our being not to burst into laughter at such funny exclamations. But yes, respect. We need to show empathy and respect for the little guy, and that requires us not to laugh at him when he’s upset.)

Jokes aside, I’m thankful that now I know¬†he just needs us to give him attention and support, and¬†to stand by his side when he’s feeling angry. It makes me recall a¬†lesson I picked up from Focus on the Family’s Parenting with Confidence¬†facilitator training session – the importance of being a parent-coach.

A coach believes in his team members, sets high standards for them and equips them with the right skills to get there. He sets reasonable and clear rules, encourages cooperation and teamwork, sets a warm and loving atmosphere at home, and values the opinions of his children. He allows the children room to grow, and never stops believing in them, even in times of failure.

I’m choosing to play the role of a loving and firm coach to JJ for now, while praying hard that we’ll get through this together.

Are you experiencing tough times with your preschooler too? What tools or tips have worked for you?
Angry feelings quote

You are my sunshine

Dear JJ,

You are 2 years and 8 months old. You started school this year without much fuss. It helps that you’ve been looking forward to being in the same school as Vera.

You are still headstrong and sometimes downright unreasonable. You want your way all the time, except for those times when jie-jie is able to win you over with her funny logic of hers. Or those times when we’ve had to scold or spank you to teach you how to obey authority.

Sometimes, you try to distract us (and get yourself out of trouble) by singing or saying silly things. Such as this song that you guys have mauled:

You are my sunshine
My only shame shame (Pause for crazy laughter. Erm the song usually ends here…)
You make me happy
When skies are grey

You are eating well and growing fast. Most of your pants now reach your mid-calf instead of ankles.

You are the silent observer when there are many kids at the playground. You turn suddenly cautious and quiet, preferring to play by yourself in the corner, or to scooter skate.

Speaking of the wheels, you took to the scooter skate like fish to water. You were able to zip about in glee and confidence within just minutes of trying.

Talk about speed. Your tantrums are like flash storms. They come and go as quickly as lightning. We try to catch you by the horns before you turn full force, but sometimes you are too quick. Other times, we get mad and have a meltdown along with you. I can’t wait till this phase dissipates into a more cooperative one because the tension doesn’t help especially when we now have baby Joshua to care for too.

But I know we have to sit it out, pray it out, and learn to work better with you. To teach you how to control your emotions. To love you even when it’s not easy to love.

Despite the tantrums.
Despite the rainy days.
Despite the way you like to barge in my room at the exact moment that I’m trying to put Joshua to bed…

I still love you. And you will still be my sunshine, my dearest little boy.

my sunshine boy

The terrible twos

Dear JJ,

You just turned two. You’re also in the thick of…

The Terrible Twos.

If you don’t know what that is, it’s a phrase (and a phase) that strikes fear even in the most courageous of parents.

We have stopped asking you anything, because to you right now, everything is a “NO” or “DO-WANT.”

Even if you really mean yes.

You’re like a walking time-bomb. One moment, you can be happily prancing around, the next, tear-and-scream-fest.

Everything can be disagreeable to you, even the way we pack your toys, place your towel on the bathroom rack, down to who’s able to wear your shoes or read you a bedtime story.

What makes it slightly more challenging is that you love to pick a fight and ruffle your sister’s feathers.

AND we’ve also discovered that your tantrums can get quite physical (though thankfully most of your punches and kicks land in mid-air and not on my face).

Sigh, you’re all but wearing mummy and daddy out.

But there is a silver lining…This IS just another phase. And as with all phases, this too shall pass.¬†(Or so we console ourselves.) If you’re anything like your sis, we think we should see the light by the end of the year.

I know there is a reason behind all this. That you are breaking away from us, learning independence, and forging your own identity as a unique little person through this process.

You’ve now discovered the beauty of your own mind. Your own will. Your own voice.

I know we need to support you in this, that we need to be patient, keep our cool, negotiate with you so you attain a measured level of decision-making, compromise, etc etc. But you need to realise that sometimes your desires are downright silly. (Such as wanting to run down a slope that leads to a road full of cars zooming by. Or wanting to swallow playdoh.)

While shaping your identity is important, protecting your life is more so. And that’s what we will do, even if it results in a meltdown.

All these said and done, you’re still our cheeky, adorable little boy. And when you’re happy, you shine like the stars in our universe.

We are counting the days till you turn three.

Till then, we just have to hang onto our seats, and do deep breathing exercises.

Love, mummee

Patience is key to mama-hood

As Vera nears two, I’ve been looking out for signs of the terrible twos manifesting in her little ways. Thus far, it seems as if her having been initiated into childcare has helped to curb Neanderthal instincts somewhat. Except for the fact that she wants her favourite food/milk always NOW, she appears to accept reasoning and negotiation alot better than before. I’m sure it also helps that she’s able to express herself a whole lot better.

Still, of late, she’s been more prone to sudden outbursts and tantrums, particularly when she knows she’s made one of us angry. I don’t know for sure, but I think she¬†is more sensitive to our feelings of anger these days.

Also, she’s been slightly less cooperative than before, wanting to play longer in her bathtub, longer at the playground, etc. Essentially, she’s only happy to comply¬†only when the outcome is yummy or¬†fun.

OR…when mummy starts to¬†hyperventilate.

Sigh, which brings me back to the title of this post. Patience is key to parenthood, and keeping your sanity. I used to fight often with my feisty toddler, thinking that I had to win all the battles in order for her to learn to respect authority.

But recently, I’ve mellowed. I’ve¬†come to see that sometimes avoiding head-on confrontation is better than reacting to the situation. Well, it does¬†save a lot of tears and energy at the very least.

In the long run, I think Vera learns obedience better via a combination of soft love and hard knocks. And the basis of our teaching and discipline must always be love.

Kids need motivation to be good. A bit like adults, I suppose.

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