How to Use the 'Strength Switch' to Overcome Your Natural Tendency to Be Negative
I laughed aloud during the Q&A at one of my parenting talks when a mother asked: “You talk about noticing our kids’ strengths, but is there a parenting approach that’s based on noticing their weaknesses? ’Cause I’m really good at seeing those!”
Unfortunately, the joy of becoming a parent and the love we feel for our children don’t magically erase our capacity to be negative. We’re super-good at seeing what our children do wrong and jumping onto the negativity train.
Psychologists have identified four thinking processes wired into our brain that predispose us to this default. Tune in to them and use the special tool I’ll provide here, and you’ll be on your way toward the more positive, productive default setting of Strength-Based Parenting.
The Four Negative Defaults
Let’s take a closer look at the four negative defaults:
1. Selective Attention
Selective attention is our brain’s way of avoiding information overload by filtering incoming information. At any point in time, we get far more input than our brains can attend to. By selectively focusing on some aspects, our brain can make sense of the world, but it does this at the expense of noticing other aspects.
Selective attention isn’t always negative, but it is always distorting. When I was trying to get pregnant, it seemed every other woman working at my university was pregnant. No, it wasn’t because of some supernatural increase in the fertility of the area or because the genetics lab had slipped something into our drinking water. My attention was simply selecting pregnant women from the crowd because pregnancy was on my mind. Of course there was no baby boom at my university. It was just that my motivation to notice them had increased.
The key thing about selective attention is just to be aware of it. If we are, we realize that we have power over it and can choose the focus of our attention—for example, on our child’s strengths instead of on his weaknesses.
2. Negativity Bias
Simply put, we’re programmed to see what’s wrong faster and more frequently than what’s right.
But there are good evolutionary reasons for negativity bias. Think of it as your personal built-in security camera system. It zooms in on potential threats and sounds the alarm. We’ve all had the experience of feeling uneasy without being able to put our finger on exactly why. This is our negativity bias alerting us to a threat in our environment.
But the downside, especially for parenting, is that it directs us to see our child’s negative behaviors more readily than their positive behaviors. It fundamentally compromises our ability to see our children fully by only showing us a limited array of information instead of the whole picture.
Suppose a bright tenth grader comes home with this report card: A+, A, A, A, D. In other words, 80 percent of her grades are excellent and 20 percent are not. But which grade did you zero in on? And which of these grades do you think will occupy more of the dinner table conversation that night? In theory, that D should command about 20 percent of the conversation. Things are different in practice.
You might be thinking: Well, of course we need to pay more attention to the D, because that’s the grade that needs improvement and the one that’s potentially stopping this girl from getting into a top college. You’re right. The question, though, is what happens when we place disproportionate attention on the D? Does so much attention on the lower grade help the girl improve? What if we addressed the D, but placed four times as much attention on the successes she’s having? What if we helped her see how she might apply some of the abilities she’s using to succeed in her other classes to assist her in the one where she’s struggling?
A strength-based approach does just that. Focusing on the areas where the girl is strong opens opportunities to analyze her work in those high-performance subjects and see what patterns can be transferred to the class where she got the D. What was it about her work in those other classes that allowed her to get an A? Instead of asking what’s going wrong, ask what’s going right.
That’s not to say that rose-colored glasses are the key to success. But our negativity bias distorts reality in the opposite direction. What we’re trying to do is cleave closer to reality: a blend of positive and negative. Too often the positive gets short shrift and doesn’t get utilized for its power to enhance achievement.
Now for an interesting twist. While we see weakness in others more readily than strengths, we’re very good at not seeing weakness in ourselves.
Naturally, positive self-views make us feel good and negative self-views make us feel bad. So our ego has developed ways to filter out the negative and amplify the positive in our sense of self. When confronted with information that challenges our positive self-view, our ego instantly seeks to restore the positive view, in a process psychologists call our “defense mechanisms.” Projection, also known as blame shifting, is a classic example.
In projection, we subconsciously displace our weakness onto others. Similar to old movie projectors, where the film is passed over the light to send or project the image onto a screen, in psychological projection, we project the negative image of ourselves onto someone else. Thus we trick ourselves into viewing that negative quality in another person and restore our positive self-view.
Projection is common in everyday life, and if we aren’t aware of our defense mechanisms (and most people aren’t), it’s an easy psychological trap for parents to fall into. When we see our son or daughter displaying a quality we dislike in ourselves, we pounce. We think we’re doing this to help our child, but the deeper truth is that we’re also doing it because we don’t want to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see our (ugly, we fear) reflections.
Projection can also cause us to try to superimpose our strengths—or desired strengths—onto our children. We’ve all seen the “sideline parents” who try to live through their children’s athletic feats, or stage parents who relentlessly push their kids’ performance abilities.
Strength-based parenting gives us the tools to see our children for who they really are—not who we are trying to force them to be—because it gives us clear, concrete criteria for defining a strength. Once you are able to identify your child’s particular talents and character traits, you can take your own projections out of the equation.
4. Binary Thinking
Binary thinking is what we do when we describe our children like this: “He’s the naughty one,” “She’s the serious one,” or, “He’s the class clown.” It’s what we do when we place our children into categories. It’s all about either/or.
Binary thinking fails to do justice to reality. People are never just one thing.
A consequence of binary thinking for parents is that it leads us to think that our kids either have strengths or they don’t. This just isn’t true. Strengths sit along a continuum from high to low, so a strength may be present and “grow-able” even if you don’t see much outstanding evidence of it.
A strength might also be manifesting in a way that you aren’t yet prepared to see. Your child’s drawing might not be museum-ready, but maybe she’s pouring all her creativity into her fashion sense or how she decorates her bedroom. Some parents mistakenly think that if their child isn’t doing well in school, it means she lacks knowledge or intelligence. Your child may not have traditional school intelligence, but I bet you anything there’s a subject about which she is very knowledgeable. Maybe it’s online gaming, music, movies, celebrities, cars, tools, fashion, or social media. A child fascinated by online gaming may be a child who could become interested in how those games are conceived, developed, coded, and marketed. A child who’s always on the phone or into social media may be great at making friends and may become someone who knows how to build online communities that bond over common interests or help drive global movements. In the short-term, she might be a skillful peacemaker in the family or your go-to partner for organizing family social events.
Bottom line: The negatively biased, projection-prone, binary approach to parenting doesn’t let us see our children as they truly are.
The Strength Switch: Your Tool for Short-Circuiting Negative Thoughts
The Strength Switch is a small but powerful tool fundamental to Strength-Based Parenting. It’s a mental switch I flick to shift my attention from a person’s weaknesses to their strengths.
I’d been getting better at seeing strengths in others—in my friends, my colleagues, my husband, and my kids, often thinking, I wonder what underlying strength is motivating them to do that.
I was doing it well when they were showing their strengths and when I was calm or in a good mood, but it all flew out the window when they weren’t showing their strengths or when I was preoccupied or stressed. I realized I needed a strategy to help me take a strength-based approach when strengths aren’t readily apparent or when I’m not primed to be looking for them.
I knew from the research that just because I wasn’t seeing my kids’ strengths didn’t mean they weren’t there. I had to find a way to shine light on them. I started to work on being mindful of that moment when the knee-jerk negative default started to take over, and pausing to get between myself and my reaction. I would 1) take a couple of deep breaths, and 2) insert a thought: The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them. Thus the Strength Switch was born.
The Strength Switch acts like a circuit breaker. I literally picture a switch and watch it flick inside my head to turn off the spotlight on the negative and turn it on the positive. Its power is in reminding me that in order to be a successful Strength-Based Parent, I need to look at what my kids have done right before I look at what they’ve done wrong. I need to focus on their strengths before their shortcomings.
Tips for Getting Started
The four biases don’t magically vanish. But you’ll discover that your brain is bigger than your biases. You can override them. It’s actually a small shift. With a little practice, you’ll tune in and hit the switch faster every time. Life being what it is, you’ll get lots of chances to practice!
Here are some tips for learning to use your Strength Switch:
1. Start with low-stakes situations.
Try it in situations that don’t annoy the heck out of you, and when you’re not feeling stressed, tired, or hungry.
2. Progress to using the Strength Switch on those small issues that turn into big arguments.
You know what they are. It’s often these minor things that fester between children and parents. The slow eating at the dinner table. The constant reluctance to do homework. The unending requests to play computer games. The obsession with texting. The moodiness!
3. When you feel your negative defaults start to cascade, STOP. In those few seconds:
Notice how you’re feeling. Annoyed? Furious? Frustrated? Disappointed? Acknowledge those feelings—they are legitimate—but don’t attach to them.
Select a strength. Is there a strength you can remind your child to use in working through this situation? Ask yourself, What strength does my child have that could help her handle this differently? How would it change what I do or say about this? Ask yourself, What strength do I have that could help me handle this situation differently?
Visualize the switch and tell yourself: “Flick the switch.” These visual and verbal cues help shift your attention.
Speak to your child’s strengths. When you see a strength, call it. For example, if your children are sharing, you can thank them for their behavior and say how you see them using a strength: “Thanks for sharing with your sister. That’s really kind [or fair] of you.” You can call forward a strength that’s needed in a given situation. If your kids are fighting, instead of saying, “Stop fighting!” you can say, “Hey, how about some cooperation here?” If your son has lost motivation to study for exams, you can remind him, “Now’s the time for your perseverance to come to the fore.”
I encourage you to think clearly and deeply about where you place your attention with respect to your child. And when you don’t have the time to think clearly or deeply, remember the Strength Switch. And flick it.
Read more by Lea... Standing for Strength-Based Parenting in a World Obsessed with Weakness
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): Jason Leung, Louis Blythe, Pan Xiaozhen, Jeremy Yap, Kelly Sikkema, and Julia Caesar on Unsplash. Stockphoto.
Tags: #StrengthSwitch, #SBP, #StrengthBasedParenting, #PositivePsychology, #Parenting, #Weakness, #Strengths, #School, #Parent, #Children, #Child, #Optimism, #Resilience, #Education, #Teaching, #Teacher. #NegativeBias
Copyright © 2017 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.