Village School

Focus on Solutions

By Aline Cardia, 1st Grade Village School Teacher

“The most challenging moments in our lives can become opportunities to deepen our self understanding and our connections with others” ( Siegel 36). 

I could tell right away that my son,  a 5’ 10’’ freshman at the time, was in a dark mood. He sulked in the passenger seat next to me, and sighed. I immediately asked him, almost as a reflex, “What is wrong?” “Nothing. I just want to go home,” he replied in a defeated voice. In my head all sorts of scenarios started to play; my son has always been perceived as different and has always struggled with social interactions and friendships. Was he being bullied at school? Was he being cyber bullied? I tried again, “You know you can tell me anything, right? I am here for you.” Silence. His face showed signs of distress. I know this kid so well, I could tell he was in pain. After a few more stop lights and intersections, I tried again. “MOM, can you just leave me alone!?! I am fine, I just told you so!!” Well, you may know the rest of the story because, as moms, we can’t just shut-up. So, I insisted until he exploded in a fury of colorful words directed against me. My heart skipped a beat at first and then sped to my throat. I started sweating and I felt not only my anger rising but also my frustration. How did my joyful and upbeat kid become so aggressive, especially towards me?  

What happens next is always the most important. After your child falls, it is your reaction that sets the tone and duration of the cries. Focusing on solutions is the tool card I take when the situation seems dire. It is hard to resist the easy path of blaming. Equally difficult is to redirect that inner voice to focus on improvements, not perfection. Positive discipline offers four problem-solving steps. 

First, Cool Off: One must try to walk away or take a cooling-off period before attempting to talk it over. So, I took a deep breath and looked straight forward into the endless 101 bumper-to-bumper southbound traffic. I murmured something like, “There is no need to yell,” held back tears, but did not say anything else for the next 40 minutes of our commute back home.   

Second, Have an Open Discussion: The next step is perhaps the most difficult in any situation — at home, school, work or among friends. To conduct an honest conversation means to be vulnerable, and it takes courage. We must be open to and aware of this challenge, especially when attempting to facilitate it with children or teenagers. It takes courage to express our feelings in first person (it is much easier to say, “You make me sad!” than “I feel sad when…). However, this is where the power of this approach resides. My son and I had an honest talk when we got home. I validated his feelings by saying that he had the right to keep his feelings to himself and to choose not to talk to me if he did not feel like it. I said I was sorry for insisting. Then I stated how I felt when he refused to share his feelings, and how I felt when he then lashed out at me for trying to help him. To my surprise, he broke into tears, apologized and finally told me what was wrong. He was feeling extremely stressed with his school workload, and he “knew” he had to do it all himself, and no one could do anything to help. 

Third, Brainstorm Solutions: After I thanked him for acknowledging his mistake, I shared with him a couple of my embarrassing personal mishaps as a teenager “doing” school, and how I figured out a system that worked for me. He laughed at my awkwardness. I knew then we had bridged a gap. We sat down together and I helped him prioritize assignments using the rubrics so he could get the best grade possible given his time and energy restraints. Although I was not going to do his assignments for him, I was able to teach him how to prioritize. Most importantly, I modeled how to be vulnerable, and how to express frustrations without blame.

As social animals, we have been wired to mimic one another. “Based on sensory inputs, we can mirror not only the behavior intentions of others, but also their emotional states. In other words, this is the way we not only imitate others’ behaviors, but actually come to resonate with their feelings —  the internal mental flow of their minds” (Siegel 61). Our brain relies on mirror neurons to make sense of others’ experiences and have empathy. When we activate them to look for solutions, not punishment or blame, we support the healthy development of empathy in children, teens and adults alike. To be vulnerable means to state what you are feeling in first person and to listen to how the other party feels about you without immediately responding (often defensively). It takes courage to agree that you are willing to act differently from now on, taking responsibility, not blame. It is not easy; it requires some training of your mind not to react and trust in the process. And it doesn’t work smoothly all the time, but we need to keep in mind that we are role models, and our actions and behavior “speak” louder than any well-intended lecture. We must show up and talk over problems because it is the most effective and respectful way to act. 

At this busy time of so much needed collaboration and cooperation, I challenge you to capitalize on these mirror neurons by teaching our children by example. Anytime you feel that those around you have not quite fulfilled your expectation, there is your opportunity to model a “focus on solutions” approach, by having a face-to-face, honest conversation. A face-to-face conversation is what defines and structures a community, “is an occasion to practice empathic skills. If you are the penitent, you are called upon to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if you are the person receiving the apology, you, too, are asked to see things from the other side so that you can move toward empathy … on face-to-face conversations, you get to see that you have hurt the other person. The other person gets to see that you are upset. It is this realization that triggers the beginning of forgiveness,” and the beginning of long lasting solutions.  (Turkle 32) 

Fourth, Evaluate: The last step in this process is to ask for help if you can’t solve it amongst yourselves. So, remember, it takes a Village. With that in mind, keep reaching out and  talking it over, not only with the children, but also with your fellow friends, focusing on solutions so we can together build a vibrant and mindful community.

Work Cited

Siegel, Daniel J. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks, 2011.

Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press, 2015.

For more about the “Focus on Solutions” tool card, visit the Positive Discipline web blog. For more Positive Discipline Parenting tool cards, visit the Positive Discipline website.