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What If That Challenging Child Behavior Is Also a Strength?

Posted by Torrey Harrison

What if your child’s bossiness or argumentativeness or the energy she has the moment she jumps out of bed is actually a strength that she was born with? What if she simply has not had the life experience to develop and maximize its potential? What if, as you are trying to tame the bossiness, to make the persistence more flexible or to rein in the energy, you might be overlooking your child’s natural born strength? What if there were successful strategies you could implement that would support the mastery of your child’s strength as well as integrate brain functions and bring greater harmony to your family?

Everyone shows up on this planet with a unique set of strengths. There are 24 signature strengths that fall into 6 categories – Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence, Wisdom and Knowledge.  (You can find out what your signature strengths are by going to University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology website and taking the VIA Survey. Click on Questionnaires.)

Some children are born with an abundance of several strengths. A lot of kindness as a signature strength will probably not cause your child to have challenging behaviors. He will like doing favors, good deeds and helping others. A child with lots of leadership or persistence strengths will often behave in ways that are challenging for parents. A child with leadership strength wants to take the lead to encourage and support a group to meet a goal. A child with persistence as a strength will want to finish what they start and rarely lets things get in her/his way. A child who has an immature leadership strength could act in argumentative or defiant ways when their strength is not recognized and supported. A child who has an immature strength of persistence might lie or argue so s/he can continue to pursue the goals s/he is focused on. These children have not had the life experiences that will help them develop the skills necessary to use their strengths effectively.

I recently explored these questions with a group of parents. A Dad of a 7-year-old boy said “I feel like I’m in a game show: every thing is about making a deal and he never gives up! He will even resort to lying to have things go his way. ” A Mom of a 4-year-old girl commented that her daughter does that too, but instead of lying she will be downright defiant. Another Mom of a 6-year-old boy said, “My son wants to do everything I do. Yesterday he came to me all excited showing me my checkbook saying he had paid all my bills. There were crayon marks all over the checks!”  I invited these parents to look at their child’s behavior through a different lens. I described the behaviors they were describing as strengths – bossiness is leadership, pushiness is persistence, and energy is zest. The Mom of the 6-year-old boy said, “Zest really describes him to a tee; he’s excited and interested in everything!”  The Dad of the 7-year-old said, “My son has leadership and persistence and he thinks he is smarter than me. What do I do about that?”

So let’s take a closer look.

A person who has learned how to optimize their strength of persistence will finish what they start. Rarely do obstacles prevent them from achieving their goal. They take pleasure in completing tasks. A child who is born with this strength might look like s/he always want to get her/his way, will not stop asking for what s/he wants, will point out all the reason why s/he should get or do what s/he wants and may even lie. Parents often talk about being worn down.

A person with the strength of leadership is someone who builds good relationships and is able to encourage and support a group to meet a goal. They are able to organize and make things happen. A child with this strength often wants to be first, will tell other children what to do, and seems to always have to win.

A person with zest approaches life with excitement and energy; for them, life is an adventure that they embrace whole-heartedly. A child with zest is active from the moment her/his feet hit the floor in the morning and s/he doesn’t stop until they have fallen asleep. They are interested in and want to do everything that can make them seem unfocused and mischievous.

Every child is born with a unique set of strengths and talents. To support our children with maximizing their potential, we need to be able to recognize their strengths and talents and help them develop and mature their capabilities. This is often easier said than done. Often, a strength that is underdeveloped can be misunderstood as a challenging behavior. When a child’s budding strength is seen as defiance or hyperactivity that needs to be changed, it can easily create frustration for a parent and child. As parents, we want our children to develop into healthy adults who have meaningful lives. We support this development when we take the time to notice what our children are doing well and build upon it.

As human beings, we all want our unique gifts and talents to be recognized and valued. When we are using our strengths to engage in meaningful activities we tend to feel a sense of accomplishment, which then influences positive emotions. This carries over into supporting positive relationships. These elements, positive emotions, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishments are the building blocks to maximizing our potential and building a meaningful life.


About Torrey Harrison

Torrey Harrison is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She did her graduate work at Smith College School of Social Work. She has over 20 years of experiences providing mental health services to children, youth, and adults. An area of expertise is in training direct care workers to provide in-home mental health interventions to children with emotional and behavioral challenges. She has presented workshops to parents, early care and education providers on Understanding Kids Challenging Behaviors, Positive Parenting, Infant Mental and ADHD. Torrey also taught class in Positive Psychology for an adult education program.

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