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From strength to strength

Father kissing daughter while she is doing homework
KATE BARBER talks with DR LEA WATERS about the power of ‘strength-based parenting’ to provide our kids with two vital tools: optimism about the future and resilience when thrown a curve ball.

Having researched strength-based science and positive psychology for decades, Lea introduces parents to ‘strength-based parenting’ (SBP), which, she says, is an ‘antidote to the sense of inadequacy many parents feel’ as they try to work out how best to nurture and support their kids to flourish in life.

In her book The Strength Switch, Lea begins by examining a commonly-held misconception about helping our kids to do well in life. ‘We mistakenly believe that the way to make our kids optimistic and resilient is to weed out all their weaknesses. Strength-based science shows the opposite is true. It tells us to turn the bulk of our attention to expanding their strengths rather than reducing their weaknesses.’

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As Lea explains, we have a series of negative defaults that make us more likely to perceive shortcomings in our kids. With persistence and patience, though, we can overcome our biases, and start noticing strengths in ourselves and in our children. An incredibly energising and rewarding shift to make for the whole family.

‘Strength-based parenting puts your kids in touch with their unique constellation of talents (which are performance based) and character (which is personality based)’, explains Lea. In doing so, SBP ‘provides your child with two vital psychological tools:

1. Optimism: the force that motivates your child to create a positive future for herself

2. Resilience: your child’s capacity to bounce back when life throws a curve ball.’

Lea defines strengths as ‘positive qualities that energise us, that we perform well and choose often’. They can be skills, abilities or talents, as well as traits and characteristics. Just because our child is good at something does not make it a strength – and Lea explains the differences between Core Strengths, Growth Strengths, Learned Behaviour and Weakness in her book.

Having identified a strength in your child, it’s about connecting them to their strength by talking about it explicitly, she says. For example: I really admire the teamwork you showed when organising the school fundraiser. 

Sometimes you’ll see strengths emerge in ordinary moments, she says. Lea talks about her 15-year-old son who loves playing the PS4 game, Fortnite. ‘I had a negative view of gaming, but when I tuned in to what strengths he was using I could see some good coming from the game. Here he is in a team of four playing another team of four, exercising strategic thinking and leadership, thinking on his feet, engaging in cross-cultural conversations, including ones about real life. Seeing the strengths has made me less negative about gaming and has reduced the tension he and I had about technology.’

As Lea notes, we tend to focus more on performance strengths, and sometimes we underestimate character strengths like patience, kindness, perseverance and courage. ‘Yet no-one can achieve without these.’

Character strengths are what our kids use in day-to-day situations and call on in times of stress. As Lea notes, strengths are like ‘anchor points’ – you can return to them when the going gets tough. Lea talks about the power of recalling an observation from the past where your child used a strength that they might be able to use now: You know when your team lost the rugby game last week, you moved on quickly and didn’t get upset with the other players. I wonder if you could use that same forgiveness now with your sister.

Lea explains that strength-based parenting – where parents help children to identify, use and grow their strengths – relates significantly to children having greater confidence, persistence and engagement, and better school grades. It increases their capacity to handle stress and has ‘protective factor’ against anxiety and depression.

Lea acknowledges that, because we love our kids, we worry about them and want to fix everything. But, she urges parents to start noticing and having conversations with their kids about their strengths, and to factor these in when the worries start to mount. ‘Have faith in your children – there will be bumps along the way, but their strengths are anchor points and they will be ok.’

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