Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Focus on Strengths

Quick, tell me five great things about your child! Maybe he’s funny, clever, caring, honest, loyal. I love when parents can easily rattle off a list of the special traits of their child. And kids love knowing that they are appreciated for all the gifts that make them unique. That’s why it’s so important for parents to focus on strengths. 


For kids and teens with a diagnosis, like Asperger’s, autism, or ADHD, this strength based focus is really crucial. So many people are working together to improve your child’s abilities, make accommodations and give them the support they need. That’s great, but the child may start to feel like a list of symptoms and a problem to be fixed, not a well rounded individual. In an ideal world, everyone who came into contact with your child would be enthusiastically looking for the abilities as well as the deficits. Unfortunately, too often, this doesn’t happen. In the rush to fix the problems and comply with all the medical and educational requirements, the special qualities that make your child shine can get overlooked.


This is where parents can really make a difference. You know your child best. You can keep your child’s strengths in mind  and share them when dealing with teachers, aides, and medical professionals. (Never walk into an IEP without reviewing your child’s gifts first! The school knows she’s disorganized. Will they remember that she’s gentle and caring with other students as well?) Your child has strengths that are a basic part of his or her personality, and there are strengths that come with the diagnosis as well. I can’t speak about individual personalities, but I do want to look at diagnoses. When kids are diagnosed, it’s generally based on a list of symptoms in the DSM. (The APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) While the DSM focuses on symptoms, there are also a lot of positives that don’t get the attention.


It can be helpful to look to some authors who have focused on a realistic, yet more positive view of a diagnosis. For ADHD, I recommend The Gift Of ADHD: How To Transform Your Child's Problems Into Strengths by Lara Honos-Webb and ADHD & Me: What I Learned from Lighting Fires at the Dinner Table by Blake E. S. Taylor and Lara, Ph.D. Honos-Webb. Both are filled with positive viewpoints of ADHD as a different way of being in the world. For Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorders, the work of Tony Attwood has a positive spin. On his website you can find an article “The Discovery of "Aspie" Criteria” by Tony Attwood and Carol Gray, which looks at Asperger’s as a collection of “strengths and talents.” Online, many of the neurodiversity websites are taking a strength based approach as well.


John Gottman, Ph.D., author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and a prominent researcher on marital happiness has found that successful marriages have five positive interactions for every negative one. I think this can apply to parents and kids as well. Can you list five gifts for every problem your child has?