An I.D.E.A. for Parenting Challenges: Take the Extra Time to Achieve Success (Part 1 of 5)

byBy Joshua Metz, LCSW

It’s a typical Tuesday afternoon in the household. Errands are being done and new ones are accumulating. Emails are calling (or perhaps another round of Gumdrop Falls is reaching out from the tablet). Dinner is in the slow cooker, the laundry is underway, and the vacuum is out and ready for duty. Suddenly there’s a cry of frustration and the sound of crashing from the other room. You rush in to see your child crying amidst a broken block structure of some kind.

“Stop crying. It’s ok!” you instinctually say as you stand over your child.

“It’s not working. I can’t get the engine to fit into the fluxenator,” your child cries, taking a large block and slamming it down.

Exacerbated and a little bewildered about what a “fluxenator” is, you decree, “That’s it. You’ve had enough with these blocks. Put them away and do something else.” There. Problem solved, and you turn to leave.

“NOOO!!” the child screams, with a face the shade of the one tomato in the garden the deer haven’t nibbled. “I need to fix it. It won’t work”.

Dismissing the problem and ordering a redirection didn’t work. The level of frustration for both is rising. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. And I don’t care. Just stop crying. It’s just blocks. If you can’t play nicely, then don’t play with them at all.” You try to clean up the blocks, thinking that if you remove them then the problem will go away. But this causes the child to scream louder, and then you start screaming.

After a time out for both of you (he in his room without the blocks, and you in the kitchen with a hastily prepared cup of Soothing Sensations), you reflect on what just happened. Why couldn’t the child just build something else if he was having so much trouble building whatever it was? Could I have done something differently? I was only trying to help. Did I over react? Did I miss the mark? When I get frustrated I take a break or do something else. Why can’t my child?

The above vignette is something that is probably part of every parent’s experience in trying to help his or her child. The intention is honorable and comes from a genuine and loving desire to end any suffering our offspring might experience. But the result isn’t always so lovely. Oftentimes, it’s because parents react too quickly to the distress without taking the time to find out what the problem is and what help is needed. We rush to judgment and react too quickly.

And now the parent in this author’s head is saying, “But Josh, if you don’t do something, it’s going to get worse.” Good point. You do have to act. But wouldn’t it be better to know what you’re acting on before a verdict is rendered and a solution prescribed? And wouldn’t it be better if your child felt you understood his or her distress, as opposed to coming in and doing the wrong thing in their eyes? Wouldn’t it be great if you could use a tantrum or episode of distress as an opportunity to teach your child how to take in a situation, figure out what is going on, look at it from different perspectives, and come to an informed decision?

Well, here’s an idea of how to help do just that. It’s something that I’ve developed after working with many families on how to take some of the more challenging aspects of parenting and try to find the teachable moment, or the silver lining in the storm clouds of family life, or maybe just something that works. I’ve created four steps to help organize a parent’s approach to finding out what the problem is, how to enlist the child’s help, and how to come up with an informed decision. And here’s a handy mnemonic device (a $20 phrase that means using a single word to help you remember what to do) for these steps:


And it stands for (I)nvestigate, (D)escribe, (E)mpathize, and (A)ct.

Following is a description of each step in I.D.E.A., followed by how it might be used to solve the problem described above. This is the first of five articles describing this parenting tool. The next four newsletter articles will be dedicated each “letter” of I.D.E.A., providing more detail about what each means and how to use them.

So let’s get started.

I INVESTIGATE. Before reacting to the yelling or crying and pleas for help, take a moment to investigate. What is going on? Where is the problem occurring? Is this something that’s happened before? Who are the players involved? See what information you can glean from the situation that can help you make a more informed decision about what to do. An added benefit to this step is that it gives a precious moment or two to get out of the reaction mode that is so often the state parents find themselves in, especially when voices are raised and the emotional meter is ticking towards meltdown. So while investigating and observing what is happening you take a deep breath (nature’s medicine to calm frayed nerves).
D DESCRIBE. Once the situation has been taken in for a breath or two, you describe what is happening. This is not the time to render a judgment on behavior or to tell the child what to do. Instead, you describe what is happening, or what you’re seeing. This way you are taking the time to make sure both you and the child are on the same page. You the parent are stepping into something that at first doesn’t involve you. By describing what you see, you stand a better chance of knowing what you’re getting into and what the problem is before any action is taken. The child or children benefits because they get a perspective on what their behavior looks like from the outside and what the parent is seeing. At this point you want to be sure to give the child a chance to respond to your description with their view of the problem. Maybe they’ve already done this, but now that you’ve described what you’re seeing without taking action, their description of what the problem is may very well change. So give them a chance to say it again.
E EMPATHIZE. The lay of the land has been surveyed. A description is provided that puts both parties (you and your child) on the same page (at least about what is happening). Now take the most important (and often the hardest for parents) step – empathize with your child’s distress. Help them see that you understand their distress and see why they’re upset. You’re not agreeing with them or sympathizing, per se. Instead you’re validating their emotional reaction and helping them feel felt. This can be hard, especially if the child is upset (no parent can tolerate genuine tears for too long), or if the problem is perceived as silly or childish from our experienced, adult perspective. Make sure the child knows that you know what they know, and that you get it. That you understand that it’s not good, whatever it is, and the child knows you get it.
A ACT. Now is the time to do something. But you’re acting from a position of strength. You’ve taken the time to investigate (and some time for a breath or two to get centered). You’ve described what you’re seeing that helps to eliminate doubt or confusion. The child feels felt because you’ve empathized and validated the feelings, thus connecting with the child on an emotional level. And now you are ready to make an informed decision about what, if anything, you can or should do to get things back on track. Maybe now all that’s needed is a hug. Or the child has described how help from you can best be used. Or maybe you need to make a parental declaration that you and the child both need to stop and take a break for while. Whatever the action is, it’s done from a position of strength derived from mutual understanding and emotional connection.

So now let’s look at the problem described at the beginning of the article to see how this I.D.E.A. approach can work.

  1. INVESTIGATE: Before saying anything you take a moment to observe. Not hearing cries of great distress or pain (which, by the way, must be met with immediate action!), you watch the child struggling with getting the block pieces together. The child loves this type of activity and is often found building quite elaborate creations. It’s a favored activity and one that he’s good at to boot. Health has been good lately. Allergies? Not an issue. And snack time was a little while ago. Now it’s time to get involved.
  2. DESCRIBE: You walk in and say, “Wow! I see you’re playing with the blocks and it looks like you’re building something. I see a bunch of pieces, and you’re holding some of them”.The child looks up, tears streaking puffed up cheeks, “I’m trying to get this to work, and it won’t. It won’t fit together!”

    “Yeah,” you agree. “I see you trying to fit the two parts together. And they won’t go together the way you want!”

    “I can’t do it. I can’t make the fluxenator. I hate this.”

  3. EMPATHIZE: Now that you have investigated, and the situation has been described, with confirmation from the child, it’s time to connect emotionally. “You’re working so hard on the flubergaster…””It’s a Fluxenator!” the child quickly corrects.

    “Fluxenator. Sorry. You’ve worked so hard on building it. It looks very complicated. I can see how it can be frustrating. I don’t like it when things I do don’t work. I can get mad too sometimes,” you say while kneeling down next to the child.

    The child leans in to you, “Can you help me?”

  4. Now is the time to ACT. Permission has been granted to get directly involved. “I’m not sure how to do it. But I bet we can figure out something together.”After a few minutes of trial and error, you both agree that it won’t work the way the child thought. But now it’s OK, because an idea for a new fluxenator has struck the child, and this time he knows what to do. You give the child a hug and get up to resume the daily duties, saying “I’m glad we figured it out. Let me know if you need any more help.”

By using the four steps of Investigating, Describing, Empathizing, and Acting that make up the I.D.E.A. approach, you’re able to take an episode of distress and frustration and turn it into an experience of connection and togetherness. Using I.D.E.A. might not be right for all situations, particularly those in which immediate bodily harm is at issue. But for those less serious situations which make up the lion’s share of daily distressing episodes, taking the extra moments to work the I.D.E.A. steps can be a powerful tool in a parent’s toolbox.

Over the course of the next four Family Compass newsletters, I will be writing about each of the steps in I.D.E.A. I will dig a little deeper into what the steps mean in terms of the larger strategy: What they look like in practice and some of the barriers and pitfalls that can arise that might prevent parents from taking the extra time to use the steps. Next month I’ll start with the first: Investigate.

In the meantime, I welcome and encourage any feedback about this article and my ideas about using I.D.E.A. You can reach me at