Jason Powers

Jason Powers M.D.

Beyond Abstinence

Powerful Way to Raise Kids Focuses on the Strong

Strength-based parenting develops important “signature strengths.”

Posted Jun 20, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Strength-based parenting is the secret to helping children handle stress and become more confident and resilient, according to a groundbreaking new study published in the journal Psychology.

This powerful way to raise children involves identifying and fostering their positive personality traits, which provides them with the inner resources to deal with the stress of everyday life. The field of positive psychology calls these “signature strengths” – character qualities that are reflected in our everyday thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Stress is good. Or at least it started out that way. The stress response developed as a survival mechanism designed to help us ward off an attack in the wild. Our threats now tend to be more psychological in nature, but stress can still play a positive role in a child’s upbringing. Experts call it “positive stress,” or minor stress, which is just part of growing up. Think lost homework assignment, making a class presentation, pressure from a coach, a falling out with a friend. Children who know their best traits can navigate these issues from a position of strength rather than avoid their problems or react in an angry, aggressive manner.

“Positive stress is a normal part of the developmental process,” said study author Lea Waters of Australia’s University of Melbourne. “Essential life skills such as coping with and adapting to new situations grow out of positive stress.”

The research offers new insights into the nascent area of positive psychology parenting strategies.

Purposely Pointing Out the Positives

While it comes naturally to most parents to provide love and emotional support to their children, many are unaware of the importance of deliberately pointing out and building their strengths, the study found. The children who participated in the research agreed, giving their parents a “D” grade when it came to noticing their best qualities and helping them use them to their benefit.

Parents who focus on a child’s “islands of competence” create hope and optimism, says Wayne Hammond of Resiliency Initiatives in Calgary. For example, a strength-based coping approach to a lost homework assignment, one student in the study said, would be to use his Internet skills to track it down. A child with personality strengths of kindness or a sense of fairness might rely on those attributes to rebuild a relationship with a friend.

Positive stress is among three types of mental tension children can experience. “Tolerable stress” and “toxic stress” result from more intense adverse experiences, such as the death of a loved one or domestic violence. While toxic stress can have negative effects on brain development, experiencing positive stress allows children to turn problems into learning opportunities.

Becoming acclimated to mild stress when you’re a child can make you more resilient in adulthood. Research has found that repeated, manageable stressors early in life—such as brief breaks from mom—can decrease anxiety and improve cognition in adulthood by changing the levels of stress hormones produced in the brain. Research also finds that mild to moderate stress is beneficial for learning and remembering new information.

Hammond agrees that focusing on what is “strong,” as opposed to protecting our kids from what might be “wrong,” is not a natural impulse. He says children typically aren’t aware of their strengths until an adult points them out. “Thanks for doing your homework the way you did. I can see that you want to get things done right,” is an everyday example. It’s a purposeful approach.

What Are Your Child’s Strengths?

If you don’t know your child’s strengths, the Values in Action Youth Survey helps identify the “best” in children. Your child may possess strengths in creativity, curiosity, dependability, humor, compassion, leadership or any number of areas. As you identify their strengths, build on them. And the best way for parents to discern their children’s strengths is to become aware of their own.

My children weren’t interested in taking the VIA survey, so I became a strengths detective – hunting for the good stuff at home, on the playground and in school. Watch your kids when they’re playing with other children (and not aware of your spying eye) and ask your child’s teachers about the strengths they’ve observed in the classroom.

The idea is not to have perfect kids, but kids who can get through life’s ups and downs and have the ability to respond in healthy, flexible ways. The goal is resilience, not invincibility. 

So focus on the personalities of your children, not just their accomplishments. Help them understand and exercise their strengths. That way, they’ll understand that making mistakes is part of growing up, and that their mistakes don’t define who they are.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and writes a blog on addiction.

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