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Change your focus to your child's strengths and watch them thrive

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
• February 16, 2022

The effects of evolution don’t always leave us in the best stead.

Take our “negativity bias,” for example. It’s an ancient survival mechanism that allows us to more easily spot what’s wrong rather than what’s right. In prehistoric times, it enabled our early ancestors to notice the sour scents of rancid foods, the strangely shaped footprints along the path, the weird sounds echoing in the night. The negativity bias kept prehistoric men and women alert to danger and hence alive. 

But when the negativity bias dominates our parenting radar, we focus too much on what’s wrong. Net result: our kids become disheartened, discouraged, and over time defeated by all the attention we aim at what doesn’t look good to us. Taming that bias comes from adopting a strengths-based parenting approach.

Consider the two main categories of strengths: talents and character. Talents are observable, performance-based attributes like skill in athletics, art and music, academics. Character strengths are internal attributes that show up as kindness, courage, curiosity, sense of humor, and many others. Research found that youth with parents who help them see and use all their strengths experience more positive emotions, feel more confident, persist more in the face of obstacles, and are generally more satisfied with their lives. 

With resolve, you’ll find no shortage of opportunities to say, “You used good judgment today when you…” or “I was impressed with how patient you were when…” or “Your wonderful sense of humor lifted my spirits when…” As you use a strengths-spotting approach, the sound of your words will infiltrate into your children’s brains and in time they will come to incorporate as part of their own self-talk the ideas they’ve heard from you. Instead of negative self-talk with thoughts like “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never get this,” they might think to themselves, “I know I’m persistent and can stick to the task,” or “I’m curious and can learn new things.”

Strength-based parenting isn’t about praising your child all the time. It’s about realistic feedback that acknowledges strengths of character and talent in a way that counter-balances the corrections and complaints all kids receive – from parents, from teachers, from friends. In fact, building a solid foundation of confidence in our strengths can make it easier to accept the reality of our weaknesses without feeling our entire identity collapse in the face of challenging feedback. 

“Our negativity bias helps us to survive, but our strengths help us to thrive.” 


Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.

During Dr. Cooper’s forty plus years as a psychotherapist, he has been exposed to a great many therapeutic approaches and schools of thought and has assembled his own eclectic framework. How he approaches couples counseling differs in some ways from how he approaches family and individual therapy, but all his work is informed by the belief that our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships — and so are critically important to understand.