Using Mindfulness to Build upon Strengths (& 5 Exercises You Can Try with Your Kids)
This is Part 2 in a three-part series on Mindfulness. You can read Part 1 here. Stay tuned for Part 3.
In Part 1, we learned that, at a basic level, mindfulness is as a structured process of focusing the mind using three simple steps:
Focus your attention on a particular thing (for example, your own breathing, or the present moment).
Notice when your attention has wandered away.
Bring your attention back.
So, You’re Mindful. Now What?
Most mindfulness experts use mindfulness to help people detach from negative thoughts and anxiety. But what do you replace these thoughts with? How do you move into positive action?
I propose using mindfulness to replace negative thoughts with strength-based thinking and work toward good outcomes in negative situations. You can teach your kids to do the same, whether it’s dealing with a tough homework assignment, a tough teacher, a problem with a friend, or a transgression with consequences that must be faced.
I remember reading a mindfulness book in which the author likened our propensity for negative thinking to a radio tuned to a bad news channel 24/7. Why not use mindfulness to retune our frequency to the strengths channel—to ask, “What strengths can I draw on to handle this?” and help our children do the same?
What would happen if we asked our children to mentally rehearse their strengths every day?
How Mindfulness and Strength-Based Parenting Work Together
Every time your child practices the three steps of mindfulness, they learn how to take more deliberate control over aiming and sustaining their inner awareness and redirecting it when it wanders. Over time, you'll find your child will improve at tuning out distractions and maintaining the sustained introspection that allows them to become aware of patterns in their thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness helps children understand the full range of their emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. This is highly useful in Strength-Based Parenting because it prompts self-insight about unhelpful mental habits likely to block strengths development, such as procrastination, pessimism, and self-doubt. It gives your child a better chance of growing strengths through adversity.
Research shows that mindfulness, when practiced over time, fosters positive emotions, which makes it easier to tap into strengths. For example, my daughter Emily tells me that when she’s painting, she notices a “tingly feeling.” My son Nick says he can tell when he’s going to sink a shot in basketball because he gets tunnel vision. All distractions fade and the net seems bigger and wider. Mindfulness helps us to know how it feels when we’re using our strengths and return to them more easily next time. As Ryan Niemiec, PsyD, so eloquently states:
“Mindfulness opens a door of awareness to who we are and character strengths are what is behind the door.”
While mindfulness helps your children on their strength journey, it also helps you as a strength-based parent, getting you through those challenging moments when you’re trying to hang on to your composure. It also helps in more enduring ways by allowing you to be emotionally present with your children, to really get to know who they are and what they’re capable of. It helps you to open the door and see their strengths.
When you do, you’ll be more likely to notice your child’s strengths happening in the moment. You might detect a sudden shift in enthusiasm, a difference in your child’s tone of voice, or a slight improvement in a skill—perhaps that’s a growth strength to cultivate. You might see that your child is spending a lot of time on a certain interest—high use—a sign of a core strength.
Mindfulness helps you flick the Strength Switch
When I teach mindfulness, I use the metaphor of a helium balloon on a string. When you’re mindful, the balloon is positioned directly above your head—fully present to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the moment. However, like your thoughts, the balloon slowly drifts away. When that happens, you’ll feel a tug on the string. This lets you know your thoughts have wandered from the present moment (maybe you were thinking about a work problem or what you’ll have for dinner). The tug reminds you to gently pull the balloon back over your head again, returning your awareness to the present moment.
Just as it doesn’t matter how often you tug the helium balloon back to your present-moment thoughts when practicing mindfulness, it doesn’t matter how many times you notice your Strength Switch is off. What matters is how much better you get at flicking it back on. And the better you get at mindfulness, the better you’ll get at the Strength Switch.
Mindful Strengths Exercises
There are lots of ways to build mindfulness into your family routine. The exercises below focus on becoming mindful of strengths. Most important, don’t turn these into chores for yourself or your kids. Susan Kaiser Greenland, an expert on child mindfulness, rightly states that compulsory mindfulness is an oxymoron. The trick to incorporating mindfulness into strength-based parenting is to keep it fun and playful.
1. A Better Question Than “How Was School Today?”
We know kids don’t really answer that (unless you consider a grunt to be an answer). Instead of “How was school today?” I turn on my Strength Switch when I pick up Nick and Emily from school. On the way home, we share the strengths we’ve used during our day and give an example of a strength we saw in someone else that day. Over time, we’ve noticed patterns about what strengths we tend to use the most—a clue to core strengths. We also discover growth strengths to work on. And, as they tell me about the situations where they used or noticed a strength, I learn what happened at school that day!
I never force this conversation, and there are certainly times where my kids are tired or grumpy and don’t want to talk about strengths. One day, Nick hopped into the car all steamed up about a particular teacher. When I asked him what strengths he had used that day, he said, “I’m not in the mood, Mom.” Fair enough. Then, 10 seconds later, he exclaimed, “I’ll tell you what strengths my teacher did not use today!” and went on to list about eight strengths he felt should have been used but hadn’t been. He ended up speaking longer and more lucidly about strengths during that ride home than on other occasions. You know your kids are really understand strengths when they can spot the absence of them.
2. Strengths Poster
One family exercise is to put up a strengths poster (a fancy term for a blank piece of paper) on the wall and, over the course of a week, ask family members to write on the poster when they spot others displaying strengths.
This exercise puts strengths mindfulness front and center for everyone because you must be in the present moment to notice the strength in the other person. It’s also a bonding activity, allowing everyone to value the strengths of other family members. When my family did this exercise, we saw each other in a new light. At the end of the week Emily had the most examples of bravery recorded on the poster. It highlighted that Emily, the smallest of all of us, was also the bravest. Matt, Nick, and I saw that many of the things we do with ease (e.g., talking to grown-ups, counting the change we get from the cashier, staying upright when the dog jumps up on us) are tougher for Emily because she’s younger. It was empowering for her to see herself through our eyes—as a brave person—whereas she’d previously thought of herself as the weakest because she was the smallest.
3. Strengths Silhouette
When Nick was four, I made him a “strengths silhouette.” He lay on a large sheet of paper and I drew his outline. We stuck the silhouette on his bedroom wall and, over the next few months when we saw him use a strength, we’d write it in his silhouette—or he would; he was learning to write and this was also a good writing exercise. In time, he learned when his performance, energy, and use were high (the markers of a core strength).
That silhouette stayed on his wall for many years. Finally, when he was 10, he took it down. That day was bittersweet for me. I was sad to see the silhouette disappear, but I was glad that Nick had internalized the knowledge that he had strengths within. For Emily at age four, I made a “confidence cape” out of pink fabric and we followed the same idea as the strengths silhouette.
4. Strengths Games
With two of my past Master of Applied Positive Psychology students, Claire Fortune and Lara Mossman, I developed two games based on the VIA strengths model that parents can play with their kids to develop strengths mindfulness and become familiar with strengths language:
VIAINGO is based on BINGO, but instead of filling in a card containing numbers, you note strengths on a sheet of strength words. You can post the sheet on the refrigerator and put a check mark next to a strength each time you see it during the course of, say, a week—signaling a family member’s go-to or core strengths.
Strengths and Ladders, based on the game Chutes and Ladders, is a more structured game that you might save for a weekend or a family vacation. It’s especially good for talking about overusing or underusing strengths—a potential downside of strengths.
Templates for both games can be downloaded from the Strengths Exchange website.
5. Strengths Reflection
Keep a diary and at the end of the day mentally review what strengths you used and how you used them. Meditate on the feelings, thoughts, sensations, and emotions you got from each strength. How does humility, for example, feel in your body? At the end of your strengths reflection session, look at the list of strengths on my website to see if there were other strengths on the list that you used but were blind to. List these in your diary and think about them in your next reflection.
Next, I'll talk about using mindfulness to help your child work on weakness. Stay tuned! And If you enjoyed the post, please click the thumbs up icon to let me know! 👍🏼
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Photo credits (in order of appearance): v-b-t, Kelly Sikkema, Pan Xiaozhen, Dakota Corbin, Andrew Robles, and Hannah Rodrigo on Unsplash.
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