Family & relationships

November 8 2016

How strengths-based parenting helps young people to thrive

Professor Lea Waters MAPS
By President Elect of the International Positive Psychology Association

Amplifying strengths helps children reach their full potential and improves wellbeing.

Parenting can be a difficult business and what often draws parents’ attention is children’s weaknesses – their faults, flaws and the tasks at which they struggle. Perhaps your child isn’t good at being patient or they find it difficult to make new friends and keep up in maths class.

While there’s no doubt that parents can help children improve in these areas, an emerging field of research reveals that focusing on children’s strengths means they’re more likely to reach their full potential and enjoy high levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing. Here’s what you need to know about strength-based parenting.

What is strength-based parenting?

Strength-based parenting is an approach to parenting that prioritises children’s strengths above their shortcomings. It’s about connecting children with their inner resources – character strengths like generosity, kindness and empathy as well as talents such as musical ability and writing – to help boost life satisfaction.

We often assume we don’t need to do much about kids’ strengths precisely because they are the things children do well. However, research shows that instead of taking strengths and positive qualities for granted, deliberately amplifying and building up these strengths helps children to reach their full potential and enjoy high levels of wellbeing.

Children whose parents use strength-based parenting techniques cope better with conflict, use their strengths to meet homework deadlines and have lower levels of stress. Unsurprisingly, they also have a better understanding of their own strengths.

During the vulnerable teenage years, strength-based parenting is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, positive emotions and confidence in the ability to cope with stress, which is especially relevant given one in four young Australians is affected by a mental health condition.

How does it differ from other parenting styles?

Let it be said that strength-based parenting is not a branch of positive parenting or much-maligned helicopter parenting.

Positive parenting focuses on praising children and helping them to always feel good about themselves. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to a child having an over-inflated ego and sense of self, and always expecting things to be positive in their life.

Strength-based parenting is different because it helps parents get to know children for who they are – what they’re good at and what they’re not good at – and teach them how to navigate the world through their strengths. Unlike the false praise often associated with positive parenting, strength-based parenting focuses on real praise.

Strength-based parenting is helpful during challenging times such as friendship troubles or the loss of a pet because children can draw on their strengths to work through problems. In these sorts of situations, positive parenting isn’t much more than a band-aid solution.

Likewise, strength-based parenting differs from helicopter parenting because it isn’t focused on clearing the pathway for children. Rather, it’s about helping children develop inner resources and strengths that allow them to clear their own pathways.

The more parents engage in strength-based parenting, the more aware they become of their children’s strengths and the less anxious they feel about children not being able to cope. Ergo, they’re less likely to engage in helicopter parenting.

Strength-based parenting in action

Strength-based parenting comprises three main processes: seeing strengths, growing strengths and celebrating strengths.

Let’s say you notice your child shows an aptitude for creativity and art. You might try to create environments where your child can play to their strengths by enrolling them in an art class and making sure you’ve got good quality pencils and paint at home. You could display the artwork in your home or suggest that your child give it to a family member as a gift.

Strength-based parenting is particularly helpful when children are experiencing problems. Let’s say your teenager daughter is going through friendship issues. You might talk to her about the strengths she has that will help her navigate the problem, such as forgiveness, empathy or bravery. Discuss how she’s managed stressful times in the past – perhaps she’s a good listener, negotiator or, in a worst-case scenario, makes new friends easily.

For families keen to delve a little deeper, a free 15-minute survey developed by the VIA Institute on Character helps parents and children aged 10 to 17 identify their strengths.