Who Owns The Problem?

The concept of problem ownership is a key principle in the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) program developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon. According to Gordon, problem ownership refers to the idea that every problem has an owner, and that it’s important for individuals to take responsibility for their own problems and to work towards finding their own solutions. When children are given the chance to solve their own problems, they develop important problem-solving skills, resilience, and independence.

As children grow and develop, they will encounter a variety of challenges and problems that are uniquely theirs to solve. These could range from social difficulties with peers to academic struggles in the classroom. As parents we feel like we need to be involved in all areas of our child’s life, but some problems belong to the child. We need to step back, allow children to be given a chance to solve their own problems and learn from their own mistakes. However, before we can do that we need to determine who owns the problem? Here’s Dr. Gordon’s method for determining problem ownership:

  • If the child is not getting what they want and this creates no problems for you, then the child owns the problem.
  • The child is getting what they want and the child’s behaviour is not interfering with you, then there is no problem.
  • The child is getting what they want, but the child’s behaviour is interfering with your rights or responsibilities, then you own the problem.

If your child owns the problem you can choose to use reflective listening, explore possible alternatives or allow the child to experience the consequence of their behaviour. If you own the problem you can communicate your feelings (using an I-message) by letting your child know how their behaviour interfered with you and how you feel about it.

The Parent’s Handbook (Dinkmeyer & McKay) includes an exercise with some common problems asking the readers to determine who owns the problem. Why not give it a try? Decide if the problem belongs to the parent or child.

  • Misbehaviour in public when the parents are present
  • Fighting with brothers and sisters
  • Misbehaviour at school
  • Homework not done
  • Not going to bed on time
  • Uncooperative in morning routine
  • Messing up the kitchen
  • Misbehaviour at the dinner table

Of course, there may be times when children need help and support from their parents, especially when they are faced with complex or difficult problems. In such cases, parents can provide guidance and support while still encouraging their child to take ownership of the problem and work towards finding a solution.

By Kylah Harrington

Credit – Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training (New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1970).

Credit – Don Dinkmeyer and Gary D. McKay, The Parent’s Handbook (Third Edition. United States: AGS American Guidance Service Inc. 1989).