Problem solving skills can be taught in the first family meeting as an alternative to learning communication skills or they can be the primary focus of a subsequent 3-way family meeting.

Problem solving in the context of relationships is a process that helps people find out what they want, and how to get what is wanted, in a way that respects other people’s wants.

Detailed descriptions of 6 key steps of problem solving that can be taught to adolescents individually are provided in CBT. Each of the 6 key steps is detailed as a separate practice element. Review this material before conducting a family problem solving skills session, and use it to flesh out the practices outlined here.

The 6 key steps of problem solving are:

  1. Recognise a problem
  2. Define a problem
  3. Generate alternative solutions
  4. Decide on one solution
  5. Try out the chosen solution
  6. Evaluate the outcome

In order to reinforce the principles of problem-solving taught to young people individually, it is recommended that the approach used to problem solving within families is based around the same 6 key steps. This Practice Element illustrates ways of adapting these 6 steps to interactive problem solving involving the young person and their primary caregiver.

Recognise a problem – By the time they have come in to see a service provider most young people and their caregivers will admit that they have problems but less will have a way of understanding problems that facilitates their solution.  Spend some time exploring the following ways of thinking about problems and problem recognition.

  • A problem is an unmet want, where the way to fulfil it is yet to be determined.
  • Recognising a problem essentially involves identifying an unfulfilled want that the person does not yet know how to fulfil.
  • The existence of problems is usually signaled by uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and most obviously by interpersonal tension or outright conflict.
  • An important aim is to communicate the attitude that problems are normal and natural, and that everybody has problems from time to time.

Define a problem – For an individual, a well defined problem will accurately describe an unmet want and point in the direction of effective ways of getting the want satisfied. In the context of a family or an interpersonal relationship, problems tend to arise because the wants of the two individuals are in opposition. Common barriers to problem-solving include when one or both persons are unclear about precisely what they want, or when one person is more confident, articulate or assertive than the other in expressing their wants.

  • In the context of relationships, a well defined problem will accurately describe the wants of both individuals and point in the direction of ways that the wants of both people can be at least partially satisfied.
  • To illustrate the concept of defining a problem, and to reinforce prior learning, try asking the young person to describe, for the benefit of their caregiver one or two problems that s/he defined previously. Provide encouragement, assistance and clarification as appropriate.
  • The role of the practitioner in helping to define problems for families is to assist both parties to:
  • Accurately describe an unmet want of their own;
  • Specify the situation in which the problem occurs (e.g. when and where it occurs);
  • Listen to and reflect back the wants of the other person in the situation, and
  • Formulate a ‘How to’ statement in a form that is goal-directed and action-oriented (e.g. How can I bring about X in situation Y?).
  • The ‘How to’ statement must refer to something that is achievable, and that can be achieved directly through actions taken by the speaker (rather than other people), and be sensitive to the wants of the other person (i.e. achieving this want should not be at the expense of the other person’s wants).

Generate alternative solutions – The idea here is to brainstorm ideas for how the problems – the young person’s and the caregiver’s - can be solved, or more specifically, brainstorm ideas or strategies for achieving their respective ‘How to’ statements. A relatively straightforward approach to this task could include the following steps:

  • Focus first on the young person’s ‘How to’ statement
  • Invite the young person to offer the first idea or two. Help him or her to articulate the ideas if necessary, by paraphrasing, reminding him of solutions he has devised previously or inviting him to think about the problem from the perspective of someone he respects
  • Invite the caregiver to join the brainstorm and offer an idea or two
  • Once all the alternatives have been generated, evaluate the list to assess the effectiveness of each. Review in light of the criteria for potential solutions
  • Now focus on the caregivers ‘How to’ statement, and repeat steps ii to iv with the roles reversed

Decide on one solution – The task here is to decide on at least one solution to the problems represented in the ‘How to’ statements generated by the young person and caregiver.  If the two problems defined by the young person and caregiver are quite distinct and deal with unrelated aspects of their relationship, then it will be appropriate to decide on one solution to each problem independently using the steps outlined in Practice Element C3iv.  More likely, the two problems and hence the solutions, will be closely related and have implications for each other. In this case the following steps may be useful:

  • Write down and review the best solutions to both the young person’s and caregiver’s ‘How to’ statements. Consider the preferred solutions from each person together. In the review process think about questions such as those following.
  • Is there a pair of solutions that can be selected – one from each person’s list - that are fully compatible with one another? If there is, can they both be implemented together, integrated, or can we choose one solution that will solve both problems?
  • Are the preferred solutions incompatible? If so, could minor adjustments be made to one or both preferred solutions to improve their compatibility? Would major adjustments be needed? Can we craft a single compromise solution that will solve both ‘How to’ statements? Alternatively, would the young person and the caregiver be prepared to choose different solutions on their list of alternative that are more compatible?
  • What are the unique circumstances of the young person and caregiver that will impact on their ability to implement the various options? The options that have less barriers will generally be preferable.
  • Write down the chosen solution/s. This will be two separate solutions or one solution that addresses the problem from the perspective of both the young person and their caregiver.

Try out the chosen solution/s

  • This will require some planning.
  • Talk with the young person and the caregiver about the specifics of how the solutions will be implemented. What specific actions will be taken? By which people? When is the most appropriate time to take each specified action? Secure commitments about precisely when actions will be taken.
  • If two independent solutions are being implemented, can they be implemented simultaneously or should one go first?
  • If verbal statements or requests to one another or a third party are required, now is a good time to do some practice using a role play.
  • If joint or collaborative action is required, are both parties equally committed to playing their respective parts?
  • Would some kind of memory aid, or other types of exercises and tools, be helpful?

Evaluate the outcome

  • Outcomes should be reviewed within a week after trying out the solution.
  • Review the outcome against the four criteria outlined in Practice Element C3vi. In the context of family problem solving additional criteria and responses need to be considered.
  • Are both parties equally happy with the outcome? Ask each person to convey their own experience and interpretation of the outcomes. Explore consistencies and inconsistencies in their views.
  • If one person is significantly less happy than the other spend some time exploring additional adjustments that could be made to the solution to improve the outcome for both persons.
  • If the solution that was tried was the one originally chosen by the person who is happiest, explore the possibility of also trying the solution preferred by the less happy person.
  • If neither 'deciding' and 'trying out' are fruitful or practical, it might be necessary to revisit the whole list of alternative solutions generated previously, or to go back to through the whole problem solving cycle again.


These 6 key steps of problem solving can be found in many cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) protocols and are described in detail by Bedell and Lennox (1997).

Techniques for teaching problem solving skills in family meetings are drawn from the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA).