Steven Spielberg is dyslexic but did not know this as a child. He struggled in school and lagged behind academically, but found that he could communicate through movies rather than words on a page. His talent to share stories and touch people’s imagination and hearts through film was born, in part, from his dyslexia. He credits the love of his parents and their support of his passions as key factors in his success.
Tim Howard has had a stellar career as a professional goalkeeper in the USA World Cup Soccer Series, as well as for the Everton Club in the U.K and Manchester United (he played with David Beckham). He encountered many challenges growing up with OCD and Tourette’s syndrome, but they didn’t deter his amazing career. While most kids got bored with soccer practice and would give up, Howard became an internationally celebrated goalkeeper by taking advantage of the features of his disorder—such as hyper-focus, deep passion, and an uncanny ability to follow the ball and not get distracted by players or fans.
Like all kids, those growing up with a disorder (be it learning, psychological, or developmental) have strengths and weaknesses; the two coexist. The problems and differences that these kids face don’t negate the many strengths they have. Yet it is typical for schools, doctors, psychologists, and others to focus only on the downsides—which also encourages children to focus on what seems to be missing or lacking in them.
If you are a parent to such a child, I don’t need to tell you how demoralizing that can be. This “diagnose and deficit” orientation of our medical, psychology, and education systems, although intended to be helpful for treatment, can erode a child’s identity.
Strength-based parenting can be an important way to build your child’s identity because it starts with the question “What is right with my child?” before it looks at what might be wrong. This parenting style starts by building up strengths and assets before it seeks to fix problems and weakness. The word before is important in these descriptions. Strength-based parenting is not about ignoring or unrealistically turning a blind eye to the downsides; it’s about where you place your attention first. When you look at strengths before weakness, you can help your kids use what they’re good at to overcome what they’re not so good at.
You may not know your child’s future pathway yet. Perhaps they will grow up to play in the World Cup or be a famous movie director; perhaps they have another path. For now, what you can do is to help your child use their strengths in everyday situations to boost their sense of self and counter the dominant message they receive that there is something “wrong” with them.
Three ways to spot a child’s strength
How do you determine the strengths of your child? A strength is anything that gives us an advantage, boosts our effectiveness, and energizes us. Strengths can be specific talents, such as the ability to compute numbers, memorize facts, see patterns in data, play a musical instrument, see the big picture, or run fast. They can also be positive personality traits or character strengths, such as kindness, loyalty, honesty, humor, zest, grit, or courage.
Strengths come in all shapes and sizes, and they sit inside everyone. When you take a strength-based approach with a child who has a disorder, you are helping them to find a gold that you know is already there.
Research suggests that there are three elements that come together to form a strength. For the purposes of strength-based parenting, we need to keep our eye on all three:
- Performance (being good at something). Watch for when your child shows rapid learning, a repeated pattern of success, and performance that is above age expectations or much stronger than their other skills.
- Energy (feeling good doing it). Strengths are self-reinforcing: The more we use them, the more we get from them. They fill us with vigor. You’ll notice your child has abundant energy when using a strength.
- High use (choosing to do it). Finally, look for what your child chooses to do in his spare time, how often he engages in a particular activity, and how he speaks about that activity.
Part of the joy of strength-based parenting is looking for signs of these three elements and offering praise and opportunities for your child to explore their strengths. Steven Spielberg’s mom, for example, helped him make home movie sets and experiment with baked beans to create and film exploding volcanoes in the backyard.
You don’t have to respond to every strength clue—that would be exhausting for both you and your child. But you can learn a lot about your child’s strengths just by observing what they naturally do and say. For example, my 12-year-old daughter Emily is constantly doodling without even realizing it. If cartoons are on TV, she draws the characters while watching. She draws pictures in every birthday card she gives to a friend. Seeing this has helped me realize how I can build this strength of hers by keeping the house stocked with art supplies, taking her to galleries, pointing out street art to her, and encouraging her to enter art competitions.
Research on other positive parenting practices—such as using praise, mindfulness, physical affection, and engagement with your child’s needs and interests—has found that it helps children with autism and ADHD to have fewer struggles around conduct, mood, sociability, and hyperactivity.
Strength-based parenting in practice
My friend’s daughter, Cassia, could recite the periodic table by the age of three—we called it the “super strength” of her autism. Fast forward 17 years, and she’s now a happy undergrad majoring in science.
This achievement didn’t come without the challenges present growing up with autism, especially the pain and confusion she often faced with social situations, particularly in her teen years. But Cassia’s parents took the deliberate approach of helping her to be defined by who she was (her amazing memory, her honesty, her loyalty, her deep interest and passion for chemistry) rather than by what others saw as different in her as a result of her disorder.
One mother in my book, The Strength Switch, is helping her 10-year-old daughter, Grace, to use her strong curiosity and love for her friends to enjoy school when she struggles to sit still and learn. Mother Katrina helps Grace channel the strengths that come with ADHD, such as abundant energy, creativity, and seeing the big picture, into choosing projects and assignment topics that truly engage her. Katrina starts first with Grace’s assets and uses these to better manage the downsides of ADHD.
This might sound like a lot of work on Katrina’s part—which is true to some extent. But what part of parenting is not a lot of work? From another perspective, connecting your kids with their strengths makes parenting a child with a disorder easier and more enjoyable. Another mother in my book describes how discovering the core strengths of her son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, allowed her to understand him better and how this helped make her parenting easier:
Fin has Asperger’s Syndrome, so it was a surprise to me that he has social intelligence as a signature strength. I didn’t really believe it until I asked others who know him well. His teachers said it made perfect sense to them—Fin notices details that others don’t and is very perceptive of others’ emotions, even though he may not always respond or know what to do with that emotion.
Seeing that this was a strength for Fin helped me to understand that he could observe people’s emotions but needed help on appropriate responses. Sometimes when he has a friend over, he’ll tell me the friend feels “uncomfortable” and he’ll explain what he sees in the friend’s face. Then we talk and he can think about how to help resolve the situation. It’s much easier for me to see and solve these social situations with Fin now that I know his strengths.
Cassia, Grace, and Fin are all relatively verbal. But researchers have also developed guidelines for using a strengths tool with youth who have intellectual disability or are minimally verbal. Teachers who implemented this strengths tool said they learned new things about their students and it allowed them to identify ways to help their students learn more effectively. The tool can be used by parents, too.
Connecting your kids with their strengths doesn’t have to be done with a tool, a survey, or words at all. In the thousands of conversations I’ve had with parents all over the world, I’ve noticed three distinct ways to approach strengths. Some parents do it through conversations with their kids. Other parents connect their kids to their strengths through more hands-on, practical ways. Still others do it by creating strength-based opportunities for their kids.
If your child is not highly verbal, then you can use the second or third approach. Tune in to the times where you see your kids in flow and enjoying what they are doing; pay attention to what grabs their attention. Focus on the situations, skills, activities, and relationships where you see your child with high energy, enjoyment, and performance. Put your efforts into enabling opportunities, timetables, equipment, and relationships that allow your child to play to those strengths.
Strength-based parenting is an approach that will help your child to see the upsides of their life, identity, and disorder. They can begin to recognize their assets and step away from defining themselves based on the diagnostic-deficit approach. What’s more, because strengths are a journey the whole family can take, parenting this way has the potential to create changes more broadly and help families achieve more happy, uplifting moments—a goal all parents aim for.