strength based parenting:

all you need to know

What if we told you that ‘strength-based parenting’ is not the name for hauling a BMX onto the roof rack, or carrying your teen’s fully-loaded plate over from the Pizza Hut buffet table?
It is, in fact, the name for your role as a fountain of positivity to coach your child (toddler to teen) through the trials and tribulations of life. 

strength-based parenting

Coined by Dr. Lea Waters, author of ‘The Strength Switch’, strength-based parenting (SBP) is also not to be confused with empty praise, which in itself can be detrimental to intrinsic motivation. Instead, the idea is to guide your attention, like a missile, onto the skills your child really is performing well. Waters navigates the reader through the system and its successes, and we’ve reduced it all into tapas-sized bites for you. So, tuck in! 

the nutshell

Instinctively, humans focus on negatives. It’s helped us survive, by remembering which swamps contain angry crocodiles, which mushrooms are poisonous, what sabre-toothed tigers look like when they’re about to maul your cousin… but is something we now have to train ourselves away from.
Catch your children being good. Look for opportunities to recognise whenever they’ve made an effort, shown compassion or courage. Don’t deplete their self-esteem and waste the chance to develop their strengths by raising every little problem area with them. Consciously steering your mind away from criticism and towards appreciation is described in the book as flicking the ‘strength switch’. 

how it can help

Evidence has shown that children raised under SBP are happier and more motivated, and the good news is that it’s never too late to introduce this approach into your family’s life. Even if your household is being shaken by the hormones of puberty, a newly positive response can soften rocky relationships and provide a stable sense of self and family during this boundary-pushing period.
A 2011 study of over 300 UK secondary schools established that life satisfaction was considerably higher amongst teens who had been taught about their strengths. Similar findings have been replicated across the world, including in New Zealand, Israel and China.
And it’s not just the kids! Waters found that parents trained in the SBP approach were also happier and more confident. It’s a win-win. 

how to cultivate an atmosphere of positivity

Waters shares a wealth of information and practical exercises in the book, as well as providing a three-pronged approach to boosting positivity within the family unit:

  • attention: be interested, spend quality time together, listen well, ask questions, engage
  • gratitude: use appreciative language, build opportunities to thank one another, show thanks to the wider world
  • goofing off: tell bad jokes, run around, pull faces, make fun of yourself

more on the 'strength switch'

Brains love patterns: they are the train-tracks that our thoughts operate on. If we can deliberately flick the strength switch enough times, focussing more on our children’s positive aspects of behaviour than negative, then soon enough it will become a spontaneous process and develop naturally in our parenting.
Imagine that every time you flick the strength switch, a light goes on. Like a UV light, or an x-ray, it illuminates things that would have been invisible to you before. With the switch off (your default, human evolutionary mode), you’re operating with a negativity bias. When you flick the switch, though, you will look more carefully for your child’s strengths. 

but what is a strength?

Your child might be able to demolish a packet of cookies in thirty seconds, but in this context, strengths are particular behavioural skills. It’s something that they… 

  • Do well: high performance
  • Do happily: high energy 
  • Do often: high use 

This can be talent-based (painting, playing the violin, doing the long-jump) or character-based (kindness, patience, humour). In fact, there are 118 strengths listed on the Strength Switch website. Why not use them as a starting point to catch your child being good?
They are grouped under six headings: wisdom (curiosity, creativity…), courage (perseverance, honesty…), humanity (friendship, kindness…), justice (teamwork, fairness…), temperance (forgiveness, self-regulation…) and transcendence (gratitude, hope, appreciation of beauty…)
We all have different combinations of strengths naturally present, in various balances. Which are your own biggest strengths? What about your children? 

how do you build strengths?

Waters’ formula is:
strength development = ability x effort
Ability starts off as a slight genetic advantage, but through practice (effort), strengths grow. This is the ‘multiplier effect’, and it’s the reason that you should spend time and energy recognising strengths and building them up, rather than dwelling on weaknesses. 
When it comes to encouraging the effort part of the formula, use specific praise (“That was so kind of you to lend your friend the ball!”) so that your child learns the behaviour as positive and desirable. Vague praise (“well done”, “good boy”) might build self-esteem but it doesn’t contribute to strength development. 

SBP methods

Observe your child. Once per week, choose one of their strengths to talk about together. This will bring the skill more into focus in both of your consciousnesses, and make future problem-solving easier.
Use strengths in questions to your kids. If they have a challenge on the horizon, you can ask, “What strengths do you have to help you with this?” 

what about when they are being pains in the bum?

What do you mean your child isn’t perfect 100% of the time?! You absolute monster! Just kidding, of course: we are all raising wonderfully flawed human beings. There will be times where they behave like absolute rotters, but SBP can still help you here.
When there has been a conflict, you can ask, “What strengths do you think were missing that may have led to the fight?” and “What strengths will help you make up?”
And to confront weaknesses, try using the 3 Ps: 

  • P… Priming: Prepare the child ahead of time by suggesting strategies and strengths 
  • P… Present moment: Mindfulness to tackle the weakness as it happens 
  • P… Postmortem: Reflection and evaluation for future 

why is it so timely?

The scrutiny on parents today is more intense than ever before. This can encourage us to micro-manage every negative aspect of a child’s behaviour as we feel the pressure to “fix” everything. Flicking the strength switch, and focussing on the positives, is a more sustainable and successful alternative.

The Strength Switch is a great book that we would recommend reading and you can buy it here. (affiliate link)