When our children do something that annoys or concerns us, it’s often difficult not to criticise or nag them.
But if we focus on our children’s strengths rather than their weaknesses, the results can be extraordinary, writes International Positive Psychology Association president Lea Waters.
My stomach knotted as I came home after a long day at work to find my 15-year-old son Nick playing Fortnite. Again.
Just yesterday, I’d spoken with him (read snapped at him) about screen time. Today, an argument began. Again.
He felt angry. I felt frustrated. We both felt misunderstood.
Why do we zoom in on the things about our children that concern us more than the things that delight us? Why do we find it so hard to resist the urge to criticise, nag, and worry?
Blame it on our brains. Our ‘negativity bias’, an ancient survival mechanism, hard wires us to spot problems in our environment more quickly than we spot the things that are going well.
I call it the Dirty Window Syndrome: A clean window doesn’t attract your attention; you look straight through it. But a dirty window is something you notice. What’s more, your focus on one specific part of the window – the dirt – means you’ll often fail to see that the rest of the window is still clean and showing you a beautiful view.
It’s the same with our kids. When things are going well, we take it for granted; but when things are going badly, that spot of dirt on the window snaps our attention into sharp focus.
The dirt, in my case Nick’s gaming, grows from a small spot to a big stain. It gets magnified, overshadowing our kids’ positive qualities, thus creating the perfect storm for conflict and for feeling anxious about their future. A useful evolutionary feature that keeps you and your kids safe from danger can be counterproductive to fostering a positive relationship.
The good news is that by learning how to shift your attention to your child’s strengths (the clean part of the window), you can override the negativity bias.
The power of strength-based parenting
Psychologists have identified two broad categories of strengths: talents and character. Talents are performance-based and observable, including things like abilities in sports, music, art, IT, and problem solving. Character strengths are personality-based and internal, including things like grit, curiosity, courage, humour, and kindness.
In research I conducted at The University of Melbourne, children and teenagers who have parents who help them to see and use their strengths enjoy a raft of well-being benefits, including experiencing more positive emotions and flow, being more persistent, feeling more confident, and being more satisfied with their lives.
Kids and teens with strength-based parents are also less stressed, cope better with friendship issues, cope better at meeting homework deadlines, and get better grades.
Parents benefit, too. In one of my studies, published in the International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, parents who were shown how to be strength-based felt happier with their children and more confident about their own parenting skills.
So how to start strength-based parenting?
Keep a strengths diary for the next two weeks and, at the end of each day, write down three strengths you saw your kids use on paper diary or on your phone. If your child has a phone, you can send them a text the next day letting them know the strengths you saw them use.
At the end of the two weeks, you can use your strengths diary to write a strengths letter to your child telling them about the strengths you see in them.
You can also get into the habit of incorporating strengths into the questions you ask your children. When your child is nervous about a big project or event coming up, ask them, “What strengths do you have to help you with this?” If they have had a fight with a friend ask: “What strengths do you think were missing that may have led to the fight? What strengths will help you make up?”
Focusing on strengths doesn’t mean we ignore problems. Instead, it shows us how to use what we’re good at to work on what we’re not so good at. Being strength-based allows parents to approach weaknesses from a larger context – seeing the whole window, not just the dirt.
In my case, I’m able to put Nick’s gaming into perspective by reminding myself ‘He’s a good kid. He’s creative and funny.’ In the grand scheme of things, he’s heading in the right direction.
When I stop worrying, I’m able to see there are strengths involved in gaming.
The self-regulation and problem-solving Nick uses to choose his moves and the grit he uses to continue even when his points are low, are the same strengths he can use to better monitor his screen time and balance this with his homework. When I comment on the humour and loyalty he uses to cheer up his friends when they die in the game, he sees how he can apply these to his relationships with his family.
When Nick sees that I’m not demonising technology and I’m giving him a fair amount of time to play, he knows he also needs to be reasonable when we ask him to get off. As a result, the negotiations about screen time are far more fruitful and less combative.
This doesn’t mean I have all the answers. The conversation about Fortnite is an ongoing one, and most days Nick tries to sneak in extra time. But the days I am strength-based are the days when he shuts the game off more quickly and more happily.
Adapted from The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by arrangement with Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Lea Waters