If you've been singled out as the one tech-savvy member of your family, you know how hard it can be to field calls for help from parents and others who see themselves as more clueless than they may really be.
Even if you haven't, the odds are good that you'll need to help someone at some point; after all, not everyone is a CNET blog reader! So pour yourself a cup of coffee (or some other refreshing beverage) and try the following tips and tricks to help smooth the process.
Try to keep in mind that they probably don't use their computer the same way you do, and they certainly don't use the same language you do. You need to deal with things on their terms as much as possible, and you should do what you can to translate your instructions into language they can understand. This can be half the battle sometimes, as clear explanations can keep problems from recurring.
For non-emergency, "How do I..." questions, try Google's Teach Parents Tech page, which lets you send short, detailed, and helpful videos on a broad range of tech topics to parents and others who aren't quite as savvy as you. There's just no need to reinvent the wheel when the smarties at Google can explain for you.
If there's a catastrophic error (like a hard-drive failure), you are in some small way off the hook. Explain that they have just a few options: if they're still on warranty, you can help them take care of dealing with customer service. If not, offer to help if you've got the skills and tools to replace the hardware, but if it's beyond you, just shake your head and help them shop for a replacement.
Other hardware problems can be tricky, but if you're present, you can check connections, restart printers, routers, modems, and computers, and track down customer service, if need be. If you're not on-site, you may need to exercise extreme patience as you guide your parents through the basic steps of troubleshooting. The odds are good that something just needs a reboot or a reconnection; barring that, it may be time for a replacement.
More likely, they're facing more mundane software issues, like malware or bloat. You may just want to shoo them away while you tackle the issue, but if you're feeling benevolent, encourage them to watch over your shoulder as you take care of basic Windows maintenance using the tools found here. Some of them (like Microsoft Security Essentials) can be set up to handle issues automatically, so you won't have to worry about them in the future. The others need to be run manually, which can be tough if you only see your folks now and then. If that's the case, try the next toolset.
It's much easier now to remotely view or even control your parents' computer, so unless their network connection is the problem, you should be able to help them from far away. Try Soluto or TeamViewer to view and issue commands to the remote computer, but remember that the software does need to be installed on both machines, so you may have to walk them through the process over the phone at first. Once it's working, though, you can handle maintenance and other tasks on their computer while you're doing your own.
Of course, no guide like this can be exhaustive, but this should cover most of the issues you face. You can also check out last year's tech support podcast with Rafe and Seth for more info. If all else fails, you can always contact customer support on your parents' behalf and help both them and whomever you end up dealing with on the other end of the line.