Difficulties solving problems arise from either a lack of skills, or difficulty using skills effectively due to emotional barriers such as depression or anxiety. Young people who have grown up in highly stressed family environments frequently miss out on learning effective problem solving from their parents, and if the family was socially isolated guidance from other adults may also have been lacking.

Problem solving skills training generally addresses lack of skills. These programs tend to break the problem solving process down into 5 or 6 distinct steps and build the skill development around these steps.

Lack of skill is rarely likely to be the only barrier to effective problem solving. Emotional stress and mental health problems, and social factors can also work to reduce the ability to solve problems. Some specific cognitive, emotional and behavioural barriers include:

  • Cognitive impairment (e.g. poor concentration, slowed thinking, impaired decision-making are common in depression and emotional exhaustion);
  • Emotional overload (e.g. feeling overwhelmed and highly anxious can reduce the mental energy and clarity available for problem solving);
  • Cognitive distortions (e.g. negative automatic thoughts, unhelpful assumptions and maladaptive schemas can impair the ability to appraise a problem realistically and identify potential solutions);
  • Avoidance (e.g. procrastination and forgetfulness get in the way of active efforts to try out and evaluate solutions);
  • Practical problems (e.g. poor literacy, poor numeracy, disorganisation), and
  • Social and environmental factors (e.g. lack of support, contradictory advice, instability and chaos in the environment).

Emotional coping, self care and basic life management or living skills are needed to address these cognitive, emotional and behavioural barriers to problem solving.