Strength-Based Discipline: 5 Questions to Help Pinpoint Why Your Child is Acting Out
This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on Strength-Based Discipline. Read Part 2 here. Part 3 will be published next week.
No matter how great your kids are and no matter how much you love your children, there will still be moments (many moments probably) that require you to help, guide and correct their behavior. When you take a strength-based approach to parenting you'll still need to discipline your children, the difference is that you approach misbehavior from a constructive, growth-oriented perspective that gives your kids a clear idea of the strengths that can be used to change for the better.
Strength-based discipline is based on the premise that by nature we are motivated to self-develop and that, negative patterns or behaviors signify a block in our drive toward strength-based growth.
Strength-based discipline is about working with a child to discover what’s blocking his progress and helping him get back on track.
Strength-based discipline can break the cycle of nagging/criticism/confrontation that quickly becomes unproductive. Despite what you might think (and what kids themselves might say), most children understand that rules are necessary. Even teenagers do, if there’s room for negotiation. Children and teens routinely report that they’ll follow rules, provided the rules are reasonable, consistent, and fair.
It’s in how the rules are enforced—in other words, how we discipline our children—where the conflicts tend to arise.
Many of us equate discipline with punishment: being made to suffer for our actions. But the Latin origin of the word is “to provide instruction or knowledge.” We can use discipline to teach our children the values and attitudes of society, right and wrong, how to get along in life, and how to get along with others.
Punishment breaks a child down. Discipline can help to build a child up.
The outcomes of discipline depend on the type of discipline used. Some types induce shame that is destructive to a person’s sense of self. Others engender uncomfortable but constructive feelings of guilt that encourage prosocial behavior. Shame and guilt are often confused, but they are very different. Let’s take a closer look at each:
Shame vs. Guilt
Essentially, there are two broad approaches to disciplining children: by inducing shame or by inducing guilt.
Shame makes a person feel bad about who they are. It is deeply rejecting because it rejects the person as being, in essence, bad. Shame-inducing statements might sound like this:
“How could you be so stupid?”
“You are rude.”
“You are selfish.”
In contrast, guilt makes a person feel bad about what they did. It rejects the person’s actions but not the person. Guilt-inducing statements might sound like this:
“That’s the third time this week that you’ve left your math assignment at home. That is not good planning.”
“What you just said to your sister was not kind.”
“Cutting in line isn’t fair to others.”
I believe that most parents who use shame as a form of punishment are doing so because of projection. They see a quality or behavior in their children that they themselves have and are ashamed of. Instead of dealing with their own shame they project it onto their children so as to avoid discomfort. But you need to think twice if you are doing this, because shame leads to self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. What’s more, it’s not even an effective form of punishment. When a child feels shame, he will withdraw from others. Shame is so deeply painful that the child’s only choice is to avoid (i.e., ignore) whatever caused the shame; thus no learning can take place.
Shame is damaging, but guilt, while uncomfortable, serves a purpose. Guilt is a powerful part of our evolutionary wiring. Guilt leads to regret and empathy. When a child feels guilt, he can amend and repair. His regret and empathy motivate him to act differently in the future. Guilt is, in a word, prosocial: It fosters bonding within a group, helping us know when we’ve done something wrong toward someone else and causing us to feel bad about it so that we will repair and not do it again. Thus, it sends a developmental message that promotes improvement, or development, of our higher capacities: the self-control, good judgment, and kindness needed for appropriate behavior as part of the human family (and our own families).
Far from telling a child he is bad, guilt can be a powerful way to communicate to your child that he is better than his bad behavior: “I’m disappointed to hear that you teased the new student in your class. I wouldn’t have expected that of you. I know you can do better.”
But how will the child figure out what “better” is? Here’s where strength-based parenting takes discipline to the next level.
Seeing Behavioral Challenges from a Strengths Perspective
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. It can be an opportunity to build social intelligence.
Whereas guilt-based discipline tells 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.
We show them how to reach within to find the resources for change, rebound from setbacks, focus their attention on repairing the problem, and move in a more positive direction.
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 for Diagnosing Possible Strength Breakdowns
For all of the reasons above, I often talk with parents about reframing children’s challenging behaviors as lapses in strength or as strength breakdowns. Rather than thinking, “This kid is a problem,” it’s about thinking, for example, “This challenging behavior is happening because she forgot to use her strengths of fairness and kindness.” Rather than punishing your child, it’s a time to teach her how to better use and fine-tune her strengths. Reframing in this way keeps you from shaming your child and makes both you and your child feel that this is something the child is capable of fixing.
Here are five questions you can ask yourself to diagnose a child’s strength breakdown:
1. Is It Strength Overuse?
Humor and playfulness are among my husband Matt’s top strengths. When I met Matt in college, he had a way of lifting my heavy heart with his quick wit, big laugh, and ability to see the lighter side of life. To this day, he still lifts my heart and makes me laugh—big belly laughs—regularly. I’m not the only one who appreciates his humor and playfulness. He’s regularly asked to be master of ceremonies at his friends’ functions, and Nick is proud that his friends all think he has the funniest dad at school. Everyone enjoys Matt’s humor.
Well, almost everyone. He tells me that it used to get him in trouble with the teachers at school. What was an appropriate display of this strength in the schoolyard was not appropriate in the classroom. In one context, Matt’s playfulness was appreciated; in another, it was viewed as disrespect. Understanding the social landscape is important in deciding when and exactly how much to let humor out to play. Many strengths are like that. Curiosity can viewed as overstepping into nosiness; persistence can be seen as stubbornness; planning and forethought can show up as rigidity; kindness can become subservience.
We’ve all been guilty of misusing a strength and getting into trouble. When we look at behavior this way, it constructively changes how we respond.
A strength-based parent taking a child to task for overplaying humor could say, “You’ve got a great sense of humor, but when you overplay it, you get out of control and it’s not a strength anymore. It leads to bad outcomes. What can you do to fix this situation and make sure your humor doesn’t get out of control next time?”
Looking at misbehavior from this perspective teaches kids strengths flexibility: how to switch gears between strengths depending on the situation they’re in and the people they’re with. We tend to fall into the habit of over-relying on our core strengths. This doesn’t sound so bad, but it can lead to negative consequences.
2. Is It Strength Underuse?
Asking your child whether she might be underusing or underplaying a strength is a much more positive way to help her reflect on her behavior than fixating on what she did wrong. Consider these contrasts in parent/child conversation:
Shame based: “I heard you were teasing the new student at school. I’m so humiliated that everyone knows about this. Typical of you to be mean. When will you ever change?”
Strength based: “I’m disappointed that you were teasing the new student at school. I see kindness and generosity in you so many other times. Last week you got up from watching TV to help your grandmother up the stairs and carry in her packages. I was so touched and proud to see how you noticed she needed help and you stepped forward. Your kindness is such a good quality in you. Is there a reason why you aren’t using it with the new student?”
Helping children see where they might be underusing their strengths builds their mindfulness about their behaviors. It’s also empowering: Kids realize that it’s not a matter of their being “bad” but rather that their best self was not present in a particular situation: I didn’t do this because I’m a bad person. I just forgot to bring in certain strengths. I know I have those strengths inside of me. If I bring them in next time, this situation won’t happen again.
Strength underuse, like overuse, becomes easier to address the more you become a strength-based parent. As your child begins to see that she has many strengths available to her, the two of you will find endless combinations of how she can use her strengths to stay out of trouble and move forward positively in all sorts of situations.
3. Is It the Flip Side of a Strength?
Sometimes what we see as a problem is really the flip side, or what psychologists call the “shadow side,” of a strength. In those situations, we need to help our kids learn new ways to regulate or express their strengths. Even what we might consider highly challenging behavior might be better handled if we can flip our view to see it through a strength lens, as this teacher discovered:
I thought I knew my eleventh graders pretty well—I had known them for their entire lives at school and taught some of them at some stage. However, talking with them about their strengths surveys allowed me to see them in different ways. For example, we teachers often found one girl challenging. She would do anything to get out of things she didn’t want to do, and her mom backed her up all the way, which was frustrating. She always questioned things, challenged school rules, asked why she had to do things, et cetera. She wasn’t nasty, just obstructive and needed careful handling, otherwise she could get very argumentative and sometimes rude.
But looking at her strengths and discussing them with her enabled me to understand where she was coming from, and to have a conversation about some of the things that had gotten in the way of our relationship. Her top strength, by far, was curiosity. Her second was fairness. Her third was honesty. She wasn’t challenging; she was curious. She wasn’t obstructionist; she was honest. If she felt she, and other students, weren’t being treated fairly, she was going to tell us!
It was as if scales had dropped from my eyes. In our conversation, I could also express my frustration that she got out of things by using notes from home and how I felt that wasn’t fair. She took that on board and, honestly, it hasn’t happened since.
4. Could It Be a Blocked Strength?
A blocked strength can cause a strong emotional response. When we can’t live in a way that feels authentic to us, it feels wrong and we get angry. How many of us have been hard to live with at home when we feel undervalued or underutilized at work? If your child is acting out, ask yourself if his strengths are being frustrated or blocked in some way.
5. Could It Be Forced Overuse of a Weakness or of a Learned Behavior?
It’s almost a cliché in the business world: A talented achiever gets promoted into a management position that’s a far cry from the original tasks in which she excelled and from which she derived great satisfaction. Even if she’s a good manager, she’s miserable because her new job forces her to constantly use learned behaviors rather than work from the energizing flow of her strengths. And if management skills are weaknesses for her, let’s just say that she won’t be the only one who’s miserable on the job. Being forced to use weakness or learned behavior could lead to bad behavior.
It’s exhausting and stressful to be in a situation where we must constantly use a weakness. Also depleting is being repeatedly required to use a learned skill that we know how to do—and may even perform well and be praised for—but that doesn’t energize us and isn’t balanced by the opportunity to flex our strengths. If it’s hard for us as adults to handle this, imagine how a child, lacking the coping skills of a mature adult, might feel and react in such situations. If your child’s behavior is frequently challenging, look at what his typical days are like. Perhaps the bad behavior is a result of him having to over-rely on weaknesses or learned behavior.
Getting a Handle on What’s Happening
It takes only a few minutes to think through the questions above and get a sense of how your child’s strengths are playing out (or not) in a given situation. This week, I want you to get a handle on what might be happening. Next week, I'll provide you with four tactics to help you put strength-based discipline into practice. The following week, I'll share the three things I do to effectively deal with weakness head-on.
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.
To learn more about Strength-Based Parenting or order your copy of The Strength Switch visit: www.StrengthSwitch.com.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Shelby Deeter, Patrick Fore, Caleb Woods, Naassom Azevedo, Jordan Whitt, Hunter Johnson, Diana Feil, Emma Simpson, and Michal Parzuchowski on Unsplash.
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Copyright © 2018 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.