Strength-based discipline is about working with a child to discover what’s blocking his progress and helping him get back on track. 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. 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.
There are times, of course, when you’ve got to confront weakness head-on. Maybe your child struggles in an academic subject but needs to achieve a certain grade in order to meet his educational goals. I wasn't good at math, but I had to do well enough to get into graduate school for psychology, survive statistics, and get my PhD, so I set about getting extra tutoring. Or maybe your child is impatient (like my daughter Emily) and needs to learn to manage those feelings better. After all, we all have weaknesses. My husband Matt and I think patience is such an important trait that we are working on it directly with Emily.
The key to working with weaknesses is to make sure your focus doesn’t become too deficit oriented.
Use gratitude, mindfulness, and self-control to ensure that your attention hasn’t been overly drawn to your child’s weaknesses. Do what needs to be done to address the weakness so that it’s not getting in the way of goals, good behavior, or performance, but don’t expect your child to turn a weakness 180 degrees into a strength.
Use the Three P's to Work with Weaknesses
At home and in my work with parents, I find that a three-pronged approach I call the Three P's can be effective in working with weakness:
What it is: In priming, you give the child a heads-up that he’s going into a situation where he will need to work with a particular weakness.
Success tips: Be calm and matter-of-fact. Life happens and we all sometimes have to deal with things we don’t like to do or aren’t good at. Ask the child what strengths he can draw on to manage his feelings. Suggest some circuit breakers the child can use if he starts to feel stressed. If possible, do your first priming processes in low-stakes, low-pressure situations, when both of you are feeling even-keeled and rested, so your child’s self-control—and yours—is likely to be strong.
Example: Emily’s impatience: “This is going to be a long car drive. It’s going to take us at least an hour. There’s a lot of traffic. I can’t do anything about it. I understand it’s annoying. It’s annoying for me, too. This is one of those situations where your being impatient is not going to get us there any faster. It’s just going to make you feel restless and annoyed and anxious. So be mindful of this as we go into the situation. What are some things we can do to help you feel less impatient during the car ride?” (To this, Emily will often suggest bringing a book, some artwork to do, or her finger puppets to play with.)
2. Present Moment
What it is: There are two levels to choose from:
Level One is simple mindfulness—flagging the issue for the child as the situation is happening to help the child prepare.
Level Two is actively working on the weakness in the moment. The more your child practices addressing her weakness in present-moment situations, the less dominant it becomes.
Success tips: Ideally, practice Level Two at a time when you and your child are feeling rested and able to practice mindfulness, unlikely to lose your tempers.
Emily’s impatience, simple mindfulness: “This is one of those times when I see your patience is being tested.”
Emily’s impatience, working on the weakness in the moment: “Now’s the time to take a couple of deep breaths and think about a different way of responding. Let’s look at it from another perspective. Is being impatient going to make the car drive any faster? Is it going to make the legal system change the speed limits? Is it going to make the other cars on the road get out of the way because there’s an impatient nine-year-old in the backseat of the car? Nope, impatience is not going to change things.”
What it is: Here you talk with your child after the fact to identify what happened, discuss how things went, look at what needs improvement, and agree on steps for getting there. A postmortem might happen a few minutes, hours, or days later (when everyone’s feeling cooler): “OK, let’s talk about what just happened/this morning’s test/the game last night/what happened the other day.”
Success tips: The goal here is to help the child become mindful about how events unfolded, how she was feeling, how she acted/reacted, and what she can do differently next time: “What was it about that situation that made you feel this way/do or say what you did? What strengths do you think might help you manage better? Is there a strength that needs to be dialed down or up? What do you think we could try so things might go better next time?”
Example: Emily’s impatience: If we've had a bad trip in the car I wait for an hour or so and then we talk about how it feels for her and we use curiosity to come up with some ideas for how to do things differently next time. I help her to see how her impatience makes things worse and how she has the capacity to make the car trips easier by changing her mindset.
Shifting the Trajectory: The Game-Changing Gifts of Strength-Based Parenting
I’ve only gone skiing once in my life, but when I did, I learned an interesting fact. I remember standing at the top of the mountain, snow sparkling all around. In front of me were two runs down the mountain. One side of the mountain was flatter and smoother. It would be a slower, more scenic, and, in my novice opinion, more enjoyable ski run. The other side of the mountain was distinctly steeper. It provided a faster, bumpier, and more dangerous ride. The distance between the two? Not much. All I needed to do was point my ski tips in a slightly different direction to have a very different experience of that mountain.
Strength-Based Parenting is about angling your ski tips just a little differently at the start of the run. As you practice Strength-Based Parenting, it’s not as though misbehavior will go away, nor that life challenges won’t continue to happen for you and your child. You still have to make it down the mountain, but you’re navigating a very different path through those challenges—one that I think will be smoother and will open up beautiful vistas for both of you. What’s more, you can access these powerful experiences through the small moments of parenting we encounter every day.
Moment by moment, Strength-Based Parenting creates small and achievable shifts that can positively change your child’s trajectory through life. I have seen many transformational outcomes in families in my years of developing and teaching Strength-Based Parenting. My hope for you and your child is a future fueled by strengths and filled with inspiring journeys of growth, adventure, and joy.
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): Ilya Yakover, Denys Nevozhai, Janko Ferlic, and Polina Kirilenko on Unsplash.
Copyright © 2018 Lea Waters. All rights reserved.