When it comes to parenting your kids do you spend most of your time pointing out what they’re doing wrong or what they’re doing right? If you’re like most time poor parents the chances are you’re quicker at identifying the things your kids need to improve upon, but is this the best way to raise kids who are resilient and able to cope with stress?

Strength-based parenting is an approach where parents deliberately identify and cultivate positive states, processes and qualities in their children," explained Professor Lea Waters from Melbourne University when I recently interviewed her at the World Congress of Positive Psychology. “By knowing and developing a child's skills, my research has found children are able to react positively to stress and minimize the likelihood that they will resort to avoidance or aggressive coping responses.”

Stockbroker/Canva
Source: Stockbroker/Canva

Click here to listen to Professor Waters’ full interview.

“Parenting has changed dramatically in the last century,” said Professor Waters. “It’s only a hundred years ago that we thought children were mini-adults and at the age of ten we’d send them out to work. As we’ve come to better understand how children brain’s develop this has had a major impact on the way in which parenting has moved from a compliance focus – children should be seen and not heard – to a curiosity and care based style of high investment parenting.

“As a result today many parents want to know how they can help their child flourish with a healthy body, brain, mind and soul,” she said. “Strengths-based parenting helps them to place their attention on the strengths of their children, on their positive qualities and processes, before they place their attention on the limitations and the weaknesses.”

If you’re reading this and thinking such an approach sounds ideal, but completely divorced from the real world let me assure you I’ve seen this work with some of the most challenging parent/child relationships. Even in my own home recently where my husband and young son have increasingly struggled to navigate their morning routine without raised voices and tears, just two weeks of intentionally focusing on my son’s strengths has enabled them to finally start walking out the door happy and on time to school and work.

An evidence-based approach grounded in the science of positive psychology, Professor Waters suggests there are three ways you can start being more strengths-based in your parenting approach:

  • Identify your children’s strengths – Your kids have strengths of personality (introversion, extroversion, etc.), character (kindness, fairness, etc.), talent (communication, strategic, etc.) and ability (music, sport, etc.). Try to spot the strengths your children have by looking for when they are at their best and give them specific examples of what you’re seeing and why this strength is valuable. If you have children over the age of eleven, you can visit www.viacharacter.org and have them take the free youth survey (you can also take the adult version) to give them a clear understanding of their character strengths. Explore with each other the strengths you have in common and where your strengths might sometimes be colliding.
  • Write a strengths letter to your children – Take the time to write a letter to your children noting the strengths you see in them, how you see them applying them, why you appreciate these strengths and ways you feel they can further develop their strengths to achieve their goals in life.
  • Have a daily strengths check-in – On the way home from school, at the dinner table or as you’re putting your children to bed ask them what strengths they’ve used today. While focusing on what’s gone well with their strengths is an important part of this routine, try to also help them spot where they might have underplayed their strengths (these will be the times they’re hesitating or holding themselves back) or overplayed their strengths (these will be the times when things aren’t quite going to plan despite their best efforts). Introducing ways to dial their strengths up or down is an effective way to address your children’s areas for development through a strengths lens.

While that may all sound like common sense, Professor Waters pointed out that because our brains are wired with a negativity bias making us more likely to see what’s going wrong, before we see what’s going right, that like any new skill looking for the strengths in our children initially requires some deliberate practice. She also observed that while previous generations of parents may be concerned that this approach to parenting may result in self-entitled, narcissist children who are grandiose in their self-confidence, the research suggests it produces a healthy self-concept.

So what are your children’s strengths? And do they know this is what you see in them?

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