Keys to Building Hope in Children: Part 3, Problem-Solving

How to Teach your Child Cope with Hope

Posted Feb 15, 2013

I blog and write on the subject of hope. On Monday (2/11), I posted Part Two of a four-part series on building hope in children. The topic of that second post was survival-oriented hope, specifically how to foster self-regulation in children. This post will continue the theme of hope-based survival (or coping).

As I mention in each post, hope derives from strong attachment, survival, mastery, and spiritual resources. To be truly hopeful, an individual must possess trust and openness, alternative solutions for problem solving, the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors, a sense of purpose and empowerment, and some form of faith, religious or spiritual in nature.

When you finished reading this blog, you may wish to visit my hope website ( You will find a free, confidential, automatically scored Child Hope Test that is appropriate for children ages 7 to 17 years. Younger children will need some assistance but older children and teens can do it by themselves. The results include a Total Hope Score as well as sub-scores for Attachment, Survival, Mastery, and Spirituality (Each will be scored “low”, “medium” or “high”, as compared to a sample of children who have already taken this test. There is also a parallel adult hope test to gauge your own hope profile.

Hope and Liberation

The word “hope” derives from more basic concepts. One ancient source is the word ‘hop” in the sense of jumping or moving from one place to another. Hope can function like a psychological bridge, transporting an individual from a place of darkness into a space of light, from a position of entrapment to an area of freedom. Hope implies there are options, an exit strategy; an escape route.

In contrast, the single, unifying theme in the experience of hopelessness is a sense of entrapment—the feeling that one cannot escape an unbearable evil. It is a feeling that has been captured in many folk traditions, where the devil arrives with locks and chains. In Greek mythology those who upset the Gods were ensnared, bound, or otherwise immobilized. Angry Zeus chained Prometheus to the side of a mountain. Ulysses, caught “between a rock and a hard place”, encountered a six-headed monster to his right (Scylla) and a deadly whirlpool on his left. Experts who have reviewed centuries of suicide notes arrive at the same conclusion, the deceased could not entertain any other option.

Four Keys to Hopeful Coping

To sustain a liberating form of hope a child needs four skills: a full repertoire of coping strategies, contingency-thinking, reality surveillance, and reality construction. Help your child to develop these skills. It will pay dividends over the course of their lifetime by allowing for the maximum degrees of freedom that can be afforded in a world filled with obstacles and constraints.

A Diverse Coping Repertoire

There is more than one way to cope. I will name ten: direct problem-solving (logical analysis), brainstorming (free association of ideas), social support (get outside help), prayer, insight meditation, distraction, avoidance, self-control, assertive confrontation, and acceptance of responsibility.

While some of these may seem “better” than others. Don’t be fooled. They all have their place. It depends on the person and the situation. The key is to become skillful in using as many of these as possible, and to know which and how many to use in a given situation.

To transmit these skills to your child, I would recommend that you role model as many of these yourself (you may have to do some skill building yourself), and provide your child with opportunities to try and then practice as many of these as possible. Communicate with your child. Get to know what difficulties they are facing and suggest one or more of these strategies as ways of coping.

I have sometimes used the example of how many different kinds of webs a spider can weave to convey the necessity of having multiple coping strategies in one’s repertoire. Spiders can make as many as seven different kinds of webs (protection for baby spiders, rain shelters, parachutes for soft landings, doors to keep away intruders, escape ropes, insect traps, and underwater diving webs).

Another therapeutic metaphor links self-regulation (see post 2) with liberation. I ask the child (or adult) to think of themselves on an island that offers a good deal of protection but which is linked with a variety of gates that lead to bridges they can access when necessary. Some of these bridges have yet to be built. Others were burned and need to be repaired. Still others are in fine shape but have never been used.


Contingency-thinking refers to having one or more back-up plans. This is helpful in several ways. It provides an actual contingency, one or more fall back options. Secondly, just knowing that these contingencies exist can lower stress and anxiety which reduce awareness (see reality surveillance below), performance, and efficiency. Thirdly, by increasing overall confidence, performance of the initial or earlier efforts can be enhanced to the point where the later-stage contingencies are no longer necessary. Again, you can role-model contingency-thinking and also guide your child towards this kind of coping.

Reality Surveillance

In the late 1960's, psychologists Beatrice Wright and Franklin Shontz interviewed severely disabled children, their parents, and therapists for insights about sustaining hope in the presence of a chronic illness. The children, ranging in age from 5 to 19, were afflicted with extremely debilitating medical conditions such as Cerebral palsy, Spina bifida, and Achondroplasia.

Among the parents, the most important component of the hoping process involved scanning and monitoring aspects of reality for evidence to support their hopes. Labeled “reality surveillance”, this behavior consisted of such efforts as collecting anecdotes of related success stories, talking to doctors about “best-case” scenarios, and taking stock of the smallest signs of progress or improvement in their children.

Teach your children to pin their hopes on facets of reality that can support and ground their coping efforts. Sit with them on the computer and research problems together. Help them to monitor any progress. Consider making charts, graphs or logs or even a list of “reasons” why they can progress past, manage, resolve, or transcend, their current situation. You might even borrow the analogy of how a computer can scan folders and subfolders for particular files that are needed to move ahead with an important project.

Reality Construction

You might want to think of reality surveillance as a “fact-finding” mission. On the other hand, reality construction is more like “fact-building”. It refers to what psychologists call the “reappraisal process”, the act of taking a different view, a new perspective, an alternative understanding. This can be particular hard for pre-teens. (It’s not even that easy for an adult.)

For younger children the bulk of the work on reality construction will have to be done by the parent, teacher, or coach. Sometimes, there is just no substitute for life experience, and perspective-taking may be one of those skills that require time. It helps if your child trusts and confides in you, and shares their inner experiences so that you know their vantage point and what alternative perspectives could be helpful. It is not always necessary to produce a different construction of reality on the spot. Telling your child that you want to think about it, conveys respect and an appreciation of their plight as well as modeling the deliberation that hope sometimes demands.

In older children and teens you could also invite a classic Socratic dialogue. More than one writer or thinker has noted words, pictures, and images can either liberate or constrain the spirit.

Ask open ended, philosophical questions. Think aloud with them. Explore definitions, meanings and labels. Look for false premises and partial truths. Question the child’s conclusions by asking if there have been exceptions or if the “opposite” could also be true. It is important to define “reality” broadly, to include both the self and the world.

Finally, you could return to the computer analogy and remind your child that his or her computer can be used to do an internal scan for trouble (spam, viruses, etc.) or assistance (needed files or folders); it can also search externally via the internet and similarly locate trouble or assistance.