The Secret to Effective Discipline is Focusing on Your Kids’ Strengths. Here’s How.

Five steps to getting them to do what you want (mostly!).

Saying no and setting limits is part of our responsibility to help our children learn self-control. But it sometimes feels as if the whole family gets stuck on the criticism-go-round: Parents zooming in on kids’ misbehavior, kids pushing back and everyone feeling frustrated and unappreciated.

How can we get off this unpleasant ride but still live in the real world, where kids mess up and we need to let them know? Strength-based parenting is a powerful, positive way to help our kids find a better way forward by tapping into their natural strengths.

A strength isn’t just something your child is good at. Psychologists define three qualities in a true strength: high energy, high performance and high use. A strength is something your child loves to do, does well and does often. It might be a skill, like science or swimming. Or a character trait, like leadership, humor, curiosity or kindness.

Strength-based discipline reminds children of the strengths they have for getting back on track and changing for the better. Here are five steps for getting started:

Step 1: Steer away from shame.

But express your disappointment. It’s important to let your child know you expect better from them, but shaming statements such as “How could you be so rude/selfish/stupid?” make kids feel bad about who they are. When kids feel shame, they’re less likely to believe they can improve. Instead, focusing on the behavior and letting your child know you think they can do better affirms your good opinion of your child while showing kids they can use their strengths to do better: “That’s the third time you’ve left your math assignment at home. I know you have better planning skills than that. What can you do to remember next time?”

Step 2: Switch your attention from weakness to strength.

I call this flipping the Strength Switch. Instead of thinking: “What’s wrong with my child?” think: “What strengths does my child have to help him handle this?”

Step 3: Determine whether the problem may have been caused by a strength that was overused, underused, or blocked.

Ever made a joke and no one laughed? Or told someone how to fix a problem who didn’t want our help? These might be cases where you’ve overplayed your humor or leadership. We all need to dial down our strengths sometimes. Other times, we need to dial them up: summon our humor to shrug off a snub; use our leadership to rally the team to finish a work project. When a strength is blocked—maybe our leadership is thwarted by our boss’s micromanagement—it can be frustrating; even infuriating. Our kids are no different.

. Working Mother

Lea Waters, Ph.D., is the author of The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. She is the President of the International Positive Psychology Association and the Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, Matthew Scholes; her son, Nicholas; and her daughter, Emily.


Step 4: Suggest how your child might use his strengths to handle the situation.

“I was disappointed to hear you were teasing your new teammate. I see so much kindness in you when you help your grandmother at home. Is there a reason why you aren’t using your kindness with your teammate?” “You’re very curious, so I’m sure it’s hard to keep quiet when you have questions while the teacher’s talking. What are some ways you could keep track of your questions and find out when it would be a good time to ask them?

Step 5: If you must confront a weakness head-on, make it a team project.

My 10-year-old daughter can be impatient sometimes. Long car drives were hard on everyone. Now we prepare: “This drive will take at least an hour. I understand it’s annoying. What can you do to feel less impatient during the ride [bringing a book, listening to music]?” If impatience flares, we focus on rethinking things: “I see your patience is being tested. Let’s look at this differently. Will being impatient make the drive go any faster?” Afterwards, we do a short postmortem: “Your idea of making a ‘car playlist’ really worked! And when you felt impatient, you did some deep breathing and calmed yourself down. Well done!”

While I can’t promise every discipline situation will be hassle-free, by focusing on strength-based discipline, you’ll be minimizing the old, tired battles and maximizing your child’s ability to learn from his mistakes, take steps to handle the situation, and make better choices next time.

Written by Lea Waters for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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