What are your child’s strengths? Figuring that out can build the foundation for a productive and joyful life. Learn how to identify and nurture them.
Parenting a child with learning and attention issues often involves focusing on issues of remediation or accommodation. Basically, how to make things better. Or how to cope with or manage certain situations. This is a problem-oriented way of thinking. And there’s certainly value in that. To the extent problems can be solved, they should be solved.
But, focusing on perceived problem areas shouldn’t be the beginning, middle, and end of defining someone’s life. Indeed, focusing on your child’s perceived areas of weakness can create its own problems. This type of attention can make them feel demoralized and decrease their motivation to try.
We also need to seek out and cultivate the good stuff that’s already right there, even if we don’t see it yet. A child’s strengths, interests, and talents can build the foundation for a productive and joyful life. And focusing on and cultivating your child’s strengths will help build self-esteem. Something that often takes many hits for a child with learning and attention issues.
As discussed in one recent study about different patterns of strengths across different types of disabilities, “character strengths provide a language with which individuals can focus on the aspects of themselves that potentially benefit themselves and society.”
Focus on What Are Your Child’s Strengths
Sometimes it can be quite a challenge to identify your child’s positive qualities. It’s often easier to see the negative before the positive. Plus, our society narrowly defines strengths. This can lead many kids with ADHD and/or other learning and attention issues to feel like they don’t have any strengths.
To help your child achieve his or her full potential, you must learn to identify and support his abilities — many of which may be hidden, which can make this task hard. For instance, it’s easy to see the negative in attention-seeking behavior. The reckless class clown who makes all kinds of silly noises on the playground demands that other kids “look at me” when he hangs upside down on the monkey bars. But there can be some positives buried there too.
One of the potential strengths of a class clown is that he influences others. This is a quality of a leader. Instead of thinking about what doesn’t work, focus on what is right. Shifting the spotlight into areas where a child shines can bring about dramatic improvements in motivation and behavior.
Another benefit to identifying and focusing on strengths rather than perceived deficits is that it can help both kids and those who interact with them with a more positive and productive way of viewing various challenges.
What Are Strengths?
The concept of strengths can be a tad squishy. Essentially they are skills, abilities, or talents that are personal to an individual that has some potential value in the world. Depending on the context, the concept of strengths can span many different categories. Spanning the realms of the emotional, intellectual, physical, and more.
According to career-oriented sites like Monster.com, employers seek strengths such as enthusiasm, trustworthiness, creativity, discipline, patience, respectfulness, determination, and dedication. In the intellectual realm, schools and colleges may focus on strengths such as attention to detail, creativity, critical thinking, enthusiasm, problem-solving, visualization, perseverance, and flexibility.
And then we also have the traditional character strengths of honesty, kindness, being helpful, empathy, loyalty, hard work, resilience, and independence. According to strength-based psychologists, strengths are things that you are good at doing or could be good at doing, that you enjoy doing (energize you), and that can benefit or contribute to something beyond yourself.
What Are Some Examples of Strengths?
You can find many different versions of a list of strengths. But generally speaking, strengths are often evaluated in different categories or buckets. Personal, emotional, social, physical, intellectual/academic, and creative or artistic. The social/emotional bucket generates qualities such as belonging, friendship, kindness, curiosity, confidence, courage, hope, happiness, independence, resiliency, compassion, playfulness, delayed gratification, and spirituality. The personal bucket generates traits such as optimism, generosity, energy, empathy, honesty, organization, planning, communication, memory, curiosity, powers of observation, listening, leadership, and charisma.
How To Identify Strengths
Strengths are a combination of talents, knowledge, and skills. According to Dr. Donald Clifton, dubbed the Father of Strength-Based Psychology by the American Psychological Association, “talent naturally resides within you, while skills and knowledge must be acquired.” So start the search for potential strengths by looking for areas of natural talent.
And “talents” can cover a wide range of activities, not just the kind of talents you would see in a talent show. Being able to connect with people quickly is a talent. The tendency to be undaunted by obvious risks. Organizing and planning complex activities with ease. Communicating ideas in an understandable way. Being able to motivate, influence and lead others can each be an independent talent. So, how can you recognize your child’s strengths? Here are some sources for potential clues.
How Do I Know My Child’s Strengths?
What’s considered a strength can vary across context and setting. Familiarize yourself with both some common and uncommon strength areas, then launch your investigation. Here’s a roadmap to potential strength areas:
- Natural attractions & affinity – Activities or experiences that your child gravitates to without prompting or is eager to engage in. So, for instance, if he sees that someone needs help, does he automatically offer assistance without prompting? Or, when it’s time for a group project, is she always the one who jumps in to coordinate or moderate?
- Natural learner – Are there activities where your kid seems to pick up things very quickly and with ease? Such as chess or musicals.
- Epic joy – Moments when your child has boundless enthusiasm. Activities that he is always excited to do.
- Limitless attention – Activities that are so engrossing that time ceases to exist – at least to him. Some kids with ADHD may experience the phenomenon of hyperfocus. The repeated object of hyperfocus could be a clue to a potential strength area.
Ask Others Who Know Your Child Well
Gather information about your child’s strengths from his or her teachers, other parents, and relatives. Hearing from others what your child’s strengths are can be an eye-opening experience. They might see or observe things that you miss.
Ask Your Child
Your child may have his or her own idea of what their strength areas are. Depending on the age and self-awareness of your child, this may or may not track with reality. But, at the very least, it gives you a starting point for investigation.
If your child doesn’t really have the ability to answer questions like that, there are other concrete questions that you can ask that will lead to helpful information. Such as: “What did you do that went well today?” A response to a question like that can yield lots of insight into potential strength areas.
So, for instance, perhaps your child was pleased that he was finally able to figure out something in math that he didn’t understand when he asked his teacher for help, or perhaps she was pleased that she got to pick the game or toy or story during social circle and all the other kids loved it. These responses in context could suggest strength areas of perseverance, assertiveness, communication, or empathy.
Examine Your Own Weaknesses
Your child could excel at something that you are terrible at or that you hate or dislike. Avoid projecting your likes, dislikes, and skill sets on your child. Consider whether your own biases/preferences are blocking him from reaching the heights of his natural abilities and interests.
Look For Hidden Strengths
Sometimes the path to identifying a child’s strengths is by examining perceived weaknesses/problem areas. This could be a potential strength that is being expressed in a negative manner, but that could be re-directed/channeled in a positive manner. The weakness could be the extreme version of a positive strength that needs some moderation.
- The child who is obstinate constantly argues, badgers, and harps — deep well of determination.
- The child who is bossy and dominating — confidence or leadership
- Glass half empty, negative and critical — analytical, observant
Keep a Strength Journal
If you are having trouble identifying or keeping track of your child’s strengths, consider a strength journal or diary to jot down observations that you make. Taking note of your child’s daily activities can help you observe strengths. Some of the things that you can put in a strength journal include:
- What things does your child enjoy doing every day?
- When given a choice, what does your child choose?
- How does she spend her free time?
- Is she kind to others? How does she express this?
- Does he stay focused on painting or drawing for long periods of time?
Potential Strengths for Kids with Learning and Attention issues
Another place to look for clues to potential strength is looking at patterns of strengths often associated with different learning and attention issues. Obviously, these traits don’t apply to every kid with learning differences but consider it as food for thought as you’re exploring your own child’s strengths.
You can often find information about handling challenges associated with ADHD, such as discipline issues, intense anger, and issues with managing a defiant child. But ADHD often has a wide range of associated strengths as well. For instance, ADHD is often associated with non-linear thinking. This can yield an abundance of creativity and innovation. Other traits often associated with ADHD include a strong sense of humor, musical or artistic talent, adventure, risk-taker, curiosity, charm, charisma, tenacity, and independence.
Strengths often associated with Dyslexia include strong memory for stories; spatial reasoning; puzzle solving; conversationalist; abstract thinkers; thinking outside the box; critical thinking; seeing the big picture, problem-solving, team-oriented, and persistence.
Dysgraphia symptoms often make the written communication of language quite difficult. In terms of potential strengths, however, people with dysgraphia are often great listeners and storytellers, problem solvers, and socially savvy.
How To Nurture Strengths
Here are some tips to help foster your child’s abilities. Lea Waters, an Australian psychologist who writes about strength-based parenting, recounts this insightful anecdote about Steven Spielberg’s childhood.
Spielberg was not diagnosed with dyslexia until late into his adult life – age 60. As a child, he struggled through school and was often bullied. He found refuge in filmmaking, and his mom actively supported his interests and gave him opportunities to explore his strengths. So, for example, when he wanted to make a home movie involving a volcano, she helped him experiment with exploding baked beans in the backyard. Are you the mom who helps bake the beans or the one who instinctively puts the kibosh on backyard explosions?
Devote Time and Attention to What Actually Works
Your child doesn’t have to be good at everything. Figure out the areas where “good enough” is acceptable and spend more time and attention on areas of positive strength. The fertile ground is likely to yield the best fruit.
Does math homework bring your child to tears? Spending hours upon hours drilling math facts is probably not the best use of your time. In a world filled with cheap calculators, not being able to instantly recall the product of 8 times 9 will not be a lifetime burden.
Accepting “good enough” for areas that will never be an area of strength frees up time to grow the ones that can be awesome. Taking pen to paper is just one way to tell a story. So while a child with dysgraphia may struggle to communicate his or her thoughts in a handwritten essay. That same child may astonish when freed to express himself using a keyboard, voice technology, or the language of film. So, rather than devoting hours practicing rote penmanship, spend some time learning to keyboard instead.
Lean In Towards Areas of Strength
You know that notion of 10,000 hours — that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. You will get much farther spending that time practicing or honing skills and traits that you are good at and like rather than those you struggle with and hate. People who rise to the top of their field have usually capitalized on their strengths rather than focusing on eliminating or shoring up weaknesses.
To return to the Steven Spielberg example: Reading the written word is not a strength area for him. By his own report, it takes him twice as long to read a script as most other people. Perhaps he would be a faster reader today if his mom had made him practice his phonics at the kitchen table rather than practicing stagecraft in the backyard. But it seems highly unlikely that those extra hours building up reading skills would have led to the same phenomenal outcomes.
Help Your Child Develop Self-Awareness
Your child probably has plenty of hidden strengths, which are things that they don’t recognize as a strength. Notice strengths about your child that they might not see as a strength. Help your child recognize that strengths are more than just being a good athlete or having an aptitude for math. Teach your child how to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. This will help them develop a vocabulary for self-awareness. They will then learn to put a name to their strengths and talents.
For instance, a behavior that’s frequently associated with autism is the tendency to focus energy and attention on a specific topic area – also referred to as restricted interests. As discussed in one recent study about strengths, participants with autism scored higher in the area of “love of learning” than other groups. What is often viewed as a challenge – restricted interests – has a much different connotation when viewed from this strength perspective. As the researchers noted, reframing the trait of restricted interests “as a love of learning may be beneficial as it could help autistic individuals, as well as others, understand how this trait may benefit society as well.”
Talk About and Document Successes
When your child is successful at something, talk about it. Instead of simply saying, “great job,” help your child identify what things made her succeed. Those things are strengths. So, if she made the track team, talk about how she did not give up even when things got very difficult. She is persistent, which is a strength. Take time to document and memorialize moments of strength. This helps reinforce your child’s positive self-image in her own eyes. As well as yours. This doesn’t necessarily have to be “achievement” oriented or a social media brag wall. It could be something simple. Like recording short videos of your child when he is doing something he loves.
At the end of the day, most folks want their kids to lead happy, productive lives. The odds of reaching such a state become exponentially greater if the road being traveled stems from building on strengths rather than filling in and paving over potholes of weakness. When you identify and nurture your kids’ strengths, you are providing them with a way to achieve their greatest potential.