How to Discover and Develop the Strengths of Your Child

In today’s world, much emphasis is placed on success. Because of the focus on high performance, many students often feel like they don’t have enough strengths. We often hear about how we ought to “play to our strengths” in order to succeed. However, what does it really mean?

Defining strengths

According to Australian Psychologist Lea Waters, strengths have three components:

He or she is good at it.
He or she feels good and becomes energized while doing it.
He or she often chooses to do it.

Talent-based strengths vs Character Based Strengths

After three decades of research, psychologists have discovered the definition of strengths, and have categorised them into two broad categories, talent-based strengths and character-based strengths. Talent-based strengths may include being good at music or having an excellent understanding of math, while character-based strengths include being exceptionally compassionate or brave.

As parents, it is easier to focus more on talent-based strengths because it is performance-based and observable. However, we have to be careful as this may have a negative effect on children who may not have yet identified their talent-based strengths because they start to think that they have little or no strengths at all.  As such, it is vital to also pay attention to character strengths which are moral-based and reveal through actions and feelings. By doing so, we are teaching them that attributes such as courage and perseverance are needed for overcoming difficulties in life, which would eventually help them recognise and develop their talent-based strengths too. Furthermore, studies have also shown that the most important character-based strengths for our well-being and happiness have been found to be gratitude, optimism, enthusiasm, curiosity and love.

So how do we help our children to discover and develop their strengths? Here are 5 practical steps:

Parents want their children to succeed and they usually have their best interests at heart. However, sometimes we may unknowingly burden our child by assessing everything they do.

For example, when your child shows you an artwork she did, instead of saying whether it is good or not, ask her what she likes about making it. By evaluating your child’s performance, it may cause your child to worry about how well they do, which may in turn hinder their ability to take healthy risks. Unreasonably high expectations may often pressure children to deter from creativity, experimentation and innovation and influence them to conform to rigid and prescribed guidelines from others. Because of how children love to please adults, they may perform so that they can gain parents’ approval rather than because they truly enjoy the task. When parents minimize expectations, children can then be free to discover what they feel energized by.  Help your children to grow into who they are, rather than who you think they should be.+

When children are allowed to be free to explore new things, the easier it be to discover strengths. Let your child be exposed to various social settings as well as a broad range of activities from art to music, dance, sports and nature. Be mindful not to only choose the ones that you think are beneficial for them. While they are at it, take time to observe the way they play and enjoy themselves. The best way to identify strengths in two or three-year-olds is to notice carefully when they are playing with other children. Besides noticing their talent-based strengths, watch for their character-based strengths as well. Is your child kind towards his or her friends? Does he or she tries to persist in solving a problem? When teamwork is required, does your child lead and influence others?

Listen to your child by being curious. Ask open-ended questions and show your interest in your child’s perspective. At the age of five, children’s ability to reason increases and so it is a great time to involve them in decision-making about activities they should or should not pursue. Questions like, “What do you think?” and “Why do you think that?” increases a child’s autonomy. If you sense that your child is giving up easily due to some struggles, remind them that learning something new or becoming skilled in an activity takes practice, patience and perseverance. Most importantly, be that role model who stick at things even when they are tough so that they can learn from your example.

Notice your child’s character-based strengths and appreciate and compliment them for it. Here are some examples:

  • When your child practices honesty by admitting to a mistake, thank them.
  • When your child makes you laugh, tell them that you enjoy their sense of humour.
  • When your child is trying to overcome a tough situation (e.g., separation from parents or going to a new school), tell them how brave they are.
  • When your child shares generously with their friends, tell them how kind they are being.
  • When your child is able to wait patiently for her turn, praise them for showing good self-control.
  • When your child chooses to forgive their sibling or friend for having upset them, show them that you are proud of them.

Encourage your child to engage in their strengths in new ways on a regular basis. Strengths can grow if you can help them think up creative ways to use them in their daily life. Here are some examples:

  • If your child shows creativity, help them find new things they can make or problems they can solve.
  • If your child enjoys being sociable, help them spend more meaningful time with their friends or expose them to more social settings.
  • If your child likes being helpful to others, help them think of kind deeds for friends and family.
  • If your child shows leadership skills, allow them opportunities to organize things and influence others.
  • If your child has an adventurous spirit, help them find challenging tasks or activities which they can overcome.

Sometimes as parents we tend to focus on fixing weaknesses and problems, and looking for strengths can be less common. However, research has proven that discovering and developing our strengths is crucial for improving health and well-being. So dial back the criticism and start noticing your child’s strengths. Help your children to value and use their strengths regularly, and they will lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

The Power of Positive Mindset

Having a positive mindset has a bigger impact on performance than what researchers have expected. A recent study by Stanford University found something surprising. Researchers observed the brains of students to understand how attitude influence achievement, and it turns out that having a positive outlook on learning, plays an equally important role as IQ.

When children do well in tests, they would naturally enjoy the subject more and feel more confident about it. However, the study has shown that the other way around — starting off with an expectation that they will like the subject and are capable in it, can help their brains to problem-solve better and improve their achievement too.

How do we as parents, help children foster more positive mindsets towards a subject or their potential then? Here are some suggestions:

To help children establish a positive mindset, we have to develop one ourselves. When parents or teachers respond to children’s struggles and mistakes with “anxiety or over-concern”, they unknowingly teach children to fear failure and prevent them from learning from trial and error.

First of all, make an effort to recognise your own unhelpful or self-defeating thinking, e.g., an overemphasis on getting things right, trying to please everyone, or fear of losing out  (to name a few). Secondly, be conscious about making a choice in shifting your negative thinking by reminding yourself to strive for progress rather than perfection. Model a positive mindset in your lifestyle and interactions with your child and he will learn its true value.

Don’t praise your children for being smart. Research by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that by doing so, it can cause children to be fearful of taking risks or pursuing tough goals that might make them feel vulnerable and less intelligent. Praise them for making effort by saying, “I’m proud that you tried really hard!” or “You really practiced that, and look how you’ve improved!”  

Build your child’s resilience by instilling in them a belief that our mental capabilities are not fixed and can be improved with effort. When your child makes mistakes, tell them that they are giving their brains opportunity for growth. So if your child comes back to you with a D on his math test, respond with something like, “What did you do?”, “what can we do next?” Don’t just tell your child to try harder, offer strategies or skills to overcome a challenging task.

Instead of saying “I can’t play basketball or I can’t do multiplication,” adding a “yet” to the end of the sentences changes their meaning and promotes growth and opportunity. The word “yet” gives children more confidence and lead them on a path that encourages persistence. By saying “yet”, it leaves possibilities open instead of just saying “I can’t”.This simple linguistic trick implies that children will master these skills eventually with time and practice.

Find meaning in things that happen

Help your child bounce back from disappointments by encouraging them to talk about their emotions and make meaning of the events that happened to them. Life is unpredictable and filled with ups and downs, and by nurturing spirituality, we can find direction and hope during difficult times. Connecting with nature, meditating, sharing stories, creating something or helping others in need are some ways to develop spirituality, which can give a greater purpose to life.

There are so many benefits to having an attitude of gratitude and one of them is helping us to develop a positive outlook. Teach your child to see the positives in everyday life, no matter how big or small. At dinner or bedtime, share stories with each other about the simple pleasures of your day. Create a “gratitude journal” together as a family by gluing pictures from magazines, drawing or writing down things everyone is grateful for. These activities do not only build close relationships, they also can create a positive environment at home.

Having a positive mindset is one of the most important strengths for building resilience, which can eventually bring greater success and happiness in life. When children learn to perceive a difficulty as a manageable one, it makes them feel more confident and gives them hope. Besides, it also acts as a shield from anxiety, depression and poor health. Teaching your child how to respond to problems positively can make all the difference. Try to find the cup half full and be on the lookout for the bright side — your kids will also do the same.