How Strong is the Strength?
How do you know if you are seeing a strength in your child? To help parents figure out if what they’re seeing in their child is a strength, could be a strength, or is definitely not a strength, I use the four-part matrix developed at the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP). The psychologists who developed this matrix classify behavior into one of four types: realized strengths, unrealized strengths, learned behavior, and weakness.
You won't be surprised to learn that children don't really relate to the psychological terminology of 'realized strengths' and 'unrealized strengths' so when I work with kids I use the terms 'core strength' (because the strength is a core part of who they are) and 'growth strength' (because it’s something small that can grow big with practice).
Let’s take a closer look at the four types...
1. Core Strengths (aka Our “Go-To” Strengths)
Core strengths are the talents, skills and positive personality traits that fuel high levels of performance, energy, and use. They’re obvious to us and those who know us. You could say they’re the essence of who we are, because if your core strengths were taken away, you wouldn’t be you. Maybe your child has always been good at balance beam (physical ability), could hold a tune from a young age (music ability), or had an innate understanding of design and technology (spatial awareness). Maybe they've always been brave or compassionate or were born with a calm, serene nature (positive personality traits).
2. Growth Strengths
Growth strengths energize us and offer the potential for good performance, but use is typically low to medium. You may see only glimpses of them in your child, but they’ll shine when given the opportunity to be developed. When your child is using a growth strength, you’re likely to notice that they are energized and showing early signs of good performance. For example, maybe you are stating to notice that your child's emotional intelligence is above what woudl be expected for his/her age. Maybe her/his chess skills are still blossoming but you are seeing signs of a fast learning curve.
Growth strengths are fascinating because they don’t look like strengths when they’re still growing, but they can shoot up quickly when they are discovered.
You can encourage your child to use their growth strengths by:
noticing the strength they're drawing on
pointing out how their performance is improving
letting them know that you see the positive energy they're exuding when they're using the strength
offering low-pressure opportunities to use that strength
It takes a lot of energy to build up your courage to use a growth strength. Think of the last thing you tried that gave you butterflies in your stomach, fitful sleep, or a lot of “what if” worry. But when you try, and it works, you get a huge shot of energy and you feel fantastic: I did it!!!! You’re growing that particular strength muscle, and it feels great. That’s the experience you want for your child.
3. Learned Behavior
While our strengths reside within us, learned behaviors are things we need to “add in” from the outside. Most often we develop them through the requirements of parents, school, and others. As such, our motivation to perform them comes from our desire to please others, operate smoothly in the world, or gain external rewards. One of my graduate students has a talent for manuscript editing. She’s really good at it (performance), but it doesn’t give her high energy, and her motivation is simply to earn money to support herself through her PhD program. That’s a perfectly valid use of a learned behavior, as long as she doesn’t get pulled into doing it so much that it governs her time and attention for too long.
The best way to work with your learned behaviors is to know what they are and slot them into your life in ways that don’t allow them to dominate for long stretches of time.
You can help your child develop learned behaviors, but do so knowing that they’ll require a lot more effort and that it’s unlikely your child will ever reach the level of performance that he will when using his strengths. Also, since they're unlikely to be energized when they're using this behavior, don’t be surprised that you have to remind them a lot. Be patient and remember that your child’s brain isn’t wired to support this particular capacity—but that with practice, neural networks will grow and a new behavior will be formed.
Finally, there’s the danger that overusing learned behaviors can sap a child’s energy and motivation, thwarting our aims of building optimism and resilience. I talk more about the overuse of strengths in this article: Strength-Based Discipline: 5 Questions to Help Pinpoint Why Your Child is Acting Out.
I define weakness similarly to what you’ll find in the dictionary or after a quick Google search. Weaknesses are features regarded as disadvantages or flaws—specifically, a flaw that prevents us from being effective. We can be weak in certain skills, abilities, talents, and aspects of our personality/character.
We all have weaknesses, and it’s important to be real with our kids about that.
Strength-based parenting doesn’t mean you ignore your child’s weaknesses; it allows you to approach them from a new perspective.
In fact, it supports more genuine, less defensive conversations with your child about their weaknesses, because your child knows that your focus is, first and foremost, on their strengths.
There are three important messages to give to your child about weakness:
Just as everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses.
Having weaknesses doesn’t mean you’re unworthy; it means you’re normal.
Avoid the trap of spending too much time focusing on your weaknesses.
In my workshops, I ask parents to write their child’s name with their dominant hand. I talk about how each of us has a dominant hand. For me, it’s my right hand. I didn’t choose that. We’re just born with our brain wired in a way that makes one hand easier to use than the other. We build on that propensity and further develop that neural network. We write with ease. Then I say, “OK. Swap hands.” It takes them much longer to write their child’s name with their nondominant hand. It’s messy, even illegible. It’s tiring and somewhat frustrating. When you constantly focus on getting your child to fix their weaknesses, it’s like you’re always asking them to use their nondominant hand. Their performance, energy, and use won’t be nearly as high as when they work from their strengths.
Constantly working on weakness can be tiring, even demoralizing. This is why Alex Linley, PhD, CEO of CAPP, says:
“We succeed by fixing our weaknesses only when we are also making the most of our strengths.”
Noted leadership expert Peter Drucker tells us that exceptional leaders connect strengths with strengths in ways that make weaknesses become irrelevant. He fully grants that we’re all “abundantly endowed with weaknesses” but also that weaknesses are inconsequential to our performance if we are focusing on our strengths.
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.
To learn more about Strength-Based Parenting visit: www.StrengthSwitch.com.
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Photo credits (in order of appearance): Anna Samoylova, Annie Spratt, Marisa Howenstine, and Les Anderson on Unsplash.
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