What does my child’s therapist mean when she says ‘strengths’ in therapy?
Every now and then parents ask me about what I mean when I say: ‘ I need to assess your child’s strengths’. And I am not surprised at some of the blank reactions because the term can be easily confused with skills and talents. In this blog, I’ll talk about what I mean by strengths in therapy and provide an activity as an example.
In Psychology, strengths can be defined as “a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2008, p.9). We can think of strengths as something that comes natural to a person (in this case a child or young adult) rather than something that is learned through some kind of training/experience, or that is biologically inherited (Niemiec, 2013). You might be thinking, ‘But talents and strengths sound the same then?’ Not exactly, a talent may not necessarily evoke a feeling of energy, joy or authenticity, like strengths does.
Even though every person has certain signature strengths, most (and parents also) are not aware of them (Jones-Smith, 2011; Niemiec, 2013). In fact in a Linley 2008 strengths awareness study, it was found that only 1/3 of the participants were aware of their strengths. Part of the reason being that strengths are so ordinary to everyone that it does not cross our consciousness (Jones-Smith, 2011, Niemiec, 2013). Niemiec terms this ‘the taking-strengths-for-granted effect’ (p.29). Another reason is based on today’s culture. People’s views of their own strengths are often based on the perceptions of significant others, including their family, teachers, and friends. And rather than focusing on actual strengths, people more often than not focus on a person’s weaknesses.
According to Biswas-Diener, Kashdan & Minhas (2011), people can have strengths and also develop new ones. But if we ignore them we can experience unspecified unhappiness and an ‘…atrophy, much in the same way a muscle, if not used, may wither’ (Smith, 2011). Therefore, the person may become disconnected from his true character strengths and overall sense of self.
Much research on strengths seems to suggest that strengths is linked to higher levels of wellbeing and helps a person to be their best selves (Niemiec, 2013). And it is recommended we use our strengths as much as possible everyday for increased happiness and optimal longevity.
In therapy, I usually use game based activities that let me get to know the child (or young adult) and his/her strengths. Once I’ve identified their strengths, I explore ways to optimize them throughout the sessions so that they know they can depend on themselves to overcome difficult emotions and situations; for some strengths, there may be limitations to watch out for.
One activity I often refer to after an initial assessment with a child (or young adult) is the Strengths Chain (‘Strengths Wheel’ for young adults) using some markers or crayons, scissors, and tape. The purpose is to create a chain of the child’s existing strengths and see how much of them are being used or not. The positive aspect about this is that it gives me a starting point for creating future plans to increase or optimize the child’s strengths use.
The activity invites the child to color the individual strengths as they talk or think about each themed group and to use the blank spaces on the last page to write in any more strengths he/she can think of. Once the child is done, we then cut the strengths that apply and connect them with tape into a chain. Following, I suggest hanging the chain on the wall and having some reflection/discussion time, including pondering questions, such as ‘What do you notice when you take a look at the chain? ‘Which strengths could be used more?’ ‘What could you do to start using your strengths more in (so and so context)?’ I also keep the chain hanging during every session incase new strengths develop and need to be added.
Biswas-Diener, R. Kashdan, T. & Minhas, G. (n.d.). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 106-118.
Linley, A. (2008). Average to A: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H.H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York: Springer.
Smith, E. (2011). Spotlighting the strengths of every single student why U.S. schools need a
new, strengths-based approach. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.