I think the moments when our children make poor choices and get into trouble provide opportunities to talk to them about where they forgot to use their strengths or what strengths they need to call forward.
Whereas typical discipline techniques tell children what not to do, strength-based discipline goes a step further, letting our kids know what they can do—reminding them of strengths they possess to address the problem.
If this sounds like we’re helping kids become mindful of their actions and building their ability to activate their nervous system’s pause-and-plan mode that can stand between them and their impulsiveness or lapses in judgment the next time around, you’re absolutely right. That’s the kind of discipline our children really need.
Five Questions Help Pinpoint Why Your Child is Acting Out
Last week, you used these five questions to diagnose your child’s strength breakdown:
- Is it strength overuse?
- Is it strength underuse?
- Is it the flip side of a strength?
- Could it be a blocked strength?
- Could it be forced overuse of a weakness or of a learned behavior?
Once you've reviewed the five questions above and have gotten a handle on what might be happening, here are four tactics to try when faced with your child or teen's misbehavior:
1. Use Circuit Breakers to Reestablish the Strength Connection
Using the Strength Switch can really help us and our kids replenish self-control by calming the nervous system and shifting thinking from the emotion-driven limbic system to the rational frontal lobe, a driver of self-control. You can still let your child know his behavior was unacceptable, but the discussion will be more effective if you use these tactics to downshift to a calmer mode before addressing the situation:
- Take some downtime. Say, “I need time to think about this before we talk about it.” Then go do a good goofing-off activity that settles your emotions. Perhaps suggest your child do the same.
- Do a two-minute breathing exercise. There’s almost always time, even in a tough situation, to take a few deep, steadying breaths. This, too, calms the nervous system.
- Spend some time feeling grateful. Bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in life to enjoy and appreciate. Find something to be grateful for. Be grateful that you even have a kid to argue with in the first place. Depending on your child’s mood, the two of you might do this together. Maybe try petting the dog together, taking a time-out for a snack, or walking around the block. It may calm the brain’s limbic arousal and help both of you get a better handle on feelings.
ICYMI: Why Gratitude is the Best Gift We Can Give Our Children
I introduce the idea of dialing up and dialing down strengths to the teachers and parents I work with. It’s effective in the classroom and one-on-one.
Basically, you suggest to the child that she needs to turn up or turn down the “volume,” or intensity level, on her strengths to address specific issues she’s dealing with. You’ll discover which strengths need to be dialed up or down by asking yourself if it’s a strength overuse or underuse (questions 1 and 2 above).
Doing this with your child helps her learn to regulate herself and understand that different situations call for different behaviors. You might even find that your child eventually turns the tables on you!
Henry is a social, rambunctious five-year-old with a boundless enthusiasm for life. We ask him to dial up or down his strengths in situations—e.g., kindness when he has hurt another, forgiveness when another has hurt him, patience when he needs to wait for what he wants—almost every day! One day when he noticed me impatiently flicking the radio stations in the car, he informed me that I needed to use more of my strength of patience!
This tactic can create constructive dialogue around even serious behavior problems, as this school psychologist explains:
A tenth-grade boy at our school was getting into trouble, socializing with the wrong people, and he had just been caught shoplifting. He had already been suspended a few times and we were not expecting him to complete tenth grade. He and I did theVIA Survey of Character Strengths and identified, among other things, that leadership was one of his signature strengths. This discovery and our conversation about it proved pivotal. First, I think it was the first time he had ever received feedback that he had all of these good qualities inside. He was so touched to hear about them that he cried . Secondly, we were able to focus on fostering his leadership strength in healthy ways. We learned that outside of school he was a great rugby player and was the captain of his team. We were able to cultivate his leadership strength in school, and he successfully finished the year.
4. Substitute or Swap in a Strength
A friend of mine is a remedial massage therapist who always starts by working with the healthy tissue before she addresses the inflamed and injured area. If she starts directly on the injured tissue, her patients become rigid and the healing isn’t effective. Similarly, if you go straight for your child’s weakness, your child will naturally become defensive. You can help your child work on her weaknesses more effectively by starting first with her “healthy tissue”—her strengths. When Nick or Emily comes to me with a problem, I’ve trained myself to swap in a strength and ask: “What is a strength you have that can help you fix this?”
I wasn’t always so quick to take this approach. Emily would be the first to admit that impatience is a weakness of hers. When she was in the first grade, her teacher told me Emily was talking too much in class. It turns out Emily was finishing her work more quickly than her classmates and became impatient waiting, so she talked to her friends as they were trying to finish their work. I spoke to Emily a number of times about this and asked her to wait patiently. She didn’t exactly take my advice to heart. When she was sent to the school principal, I needed a new tactic.
I realized that I was framing the issue in terms of her weakness—the fact that she lacks patience. Instead of trying to minimize a weakness, I decided to maximize a strength. So I turned on my Strength Switch and thought about the positive feedback I’d gotten from her teacher at the parent-teacher conference the previous semester, when the teacher had praised Emily’s cooperative nature, her love of learning, and her kindness. Emily has been kind ever since she was very young, when she would share her toys, include people in her games, and go out of her way to make others feel good. Kindness is one of her core strengths.
As soon as I turned on my Strength Switch and reframed the situation through her strengths of kindness and cooperation rather than harping on her weakness of impatience, Emily immediately understood what she needed to do, and her classroom behavior improved.
Confronting Weakness Head-on
There are times, of course, when you’ve got to confront weakness head-on. I'll share more on that next week.
This post includes excerpts from Lea Waters’s book “The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish" which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here. Greater Good Magazine named "The Strength Switch" one of its Favorite Books of 2017.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): photo-nic.co.uk Nic, Katherine Chase, Delfi De La Rua, Seth Hays, Pan Xiaozhen, Denys Nevozhai, Janko Ferlic, and Polina Kirilenko on Unsplash.
Copyright © 2018 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.