Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Keeping a Focus on Strengths: Managing Self-Esteem, Relationships & Behaviours

Written by:
Melanie Reader, B.Sc. (Hons). MSc., Registered Psychologist
Manager, Psychological Services & Programs
March 29, 2019

When a child displays challenging behaviours, it is sometimes difficult for parents and teachers alike to recognize the strengths of the child. For some families, most of the day can be spent on correcting behaviours. Or, it takes all the parent's energy just to get the child through daily tasks. In these cases, it can be challenging for parents to remember the positives of the day. The resulting frustration can then lead a parent to question how to deal with the child’s behaviours positively. 

EVERY Child Has Something Positive to Offer the World

Thankfully, there is much research to help guide parents in this quest. In particular, research points to the importance of working from a strength-based model:

  • to increase a child’s self-esteem,
  • to build up the parent-child relationship, and
  • to support the management of negative behaviours. 

Once a diagnosis has been given, it is important to change your mindset about the disability so that you (and your child) can know and own it. It is very easy when we hear the word “disability” to think only of the negatives or weaknesses. But over-focusing on these challenges will only leave the child feeling miserable and self-doubting the strengths they do have. EVERY child has something positive to offer to the world that should be acknowledged and praised. For example, it is easy to focus on the difficulties related to impulsivity and distractibility of a child with ADHD. However, recent research is suggesting that these same difficulties can assist these children in taking creative risks and coming up with new ideas for problems. If we're not careful, these great qualities can get forgotten among the challenges.

It is important to know what the child’s challenges are in order to get them the support they need. But, we also need to know the child’s strengths in order to use them in this support. For example, in the school environment, a child’s strength in oral language can be used to assist them in using voice-to-text assistive technology to get their ideas across in written form. With assistance, a child with ADHD can constructively channel their high intensity and energy into an intense drive towards an activity of interest.

Every child has something that they do well, even if it is not quite obvious (e.g., a strength in athleticism versus a strength in perceptiveness). All children benefit from a focus on strengths. Children with Learning Disabilities and associated disorders need an even greater focus on strengths to help compensate for their challenges. Building strong self-esteem and a positive self-awareness begin with a thorough understanding of their strengths and abilities. 

Importance of Parent-Child Relationship

Determining a child’s unique strengths will assist parents in deciding which parenting techniques will work best with him/her. A reward that is highly motivating to one child may not motivate another child at all. Children crave their parents’ admiration and do not want to disappoint them. They will likely respond well to a parent taking an interest in what they are interested in. Provide opportunities for them to display their work and boast about it to others (e.g., show off their artwork to family and friends). Above all else, children want to spend time with their parents. Spending time with children helps develop a strong relationship. Such time should be separate from that focused on completing tasks (i.e., homework) and on discipline. This “special time” is even more important for children who are difficult to manage. The parent-child relationship can be impacted by the daily negative behaviours and the subsequent response of discipline. Once the relationship is developed, the management of behaviour can follow. Your child is more likely to follow through with your requests if you start from a positive relationship in combination with verbalizing their strengths. 

Catch Them Being Good

Although perhaps hard to do, the greatest technique to manage behaviour is to “catch ‘em being good.” Children with Learning Disabilities and associated disorders tend to respond better to rewards than to punishment. They crave positive attention and may display severe overreactions to negative attention or punishment. It is recommended that parents offer attention to appropriate behaviour while ignoring inappropriate behaviour. This is the opposite of how parents tend to respond to behaviour. The greatest reward to offer is verbal praise that is very detailed and descriptive to reinforce the specific behaviour. Instead of a general “Good job!”, try saying “Good job in putting your toys away in the toy box”. This will result in an increase in the appropriate behaviour and a decrease in the inappropriate behaviour.

It is tempting to try and correct the incorrect behaviour. But, the attention provided by that correction may actually reinforce the behaviour you wish to change. Conversely, if we ignore the appropriate behaviour, we do not reinforce it. Therefore, it is less likely to be continued. Giving credit for even partially correct behaviour is also important to help in working towards independent behaviour. For example, you can provide positive feedback to a child for starting a task even if they got distracted before finishing. 

In addition to the focus on strengths and reinforcement of appropriate behaviour, here are a few things to keep in mind when managing your child’s behaviour: 

  • Your child’s responses to situations are often emotionally based (due to difficulties with self-regulation). Do not take them personally or as a reflection of your parenting. 
     
  • Many of these children do not easily learn from past mistakes. Even though you may feel like a ‘broken record,’ they will need regular reminders about appropriate behaviours. It is important to remember that they are not trying to “forget” or to “be bad”; it is simply the disorder. Nagging about the fact that they have not cleaned their room may be fruitless if the child does not know where to start with the task (i.e., due to executive functioning difficulties). 
     
  • Research suggests that children with learning and attention-related disorders tend to be about 30% delayed developmentally as compared to children the same age. Therefore, when you are talking to a 7-year-old, he is likely going to respond more like a 4–5 year old. Keep your expectations at that adjusted age level. 
     
  • It takes 28 days to learn a new skill. This means learning the skill consistently and in the same way over those 28 days. If you are attempting a new parenting strategy, it will be important to stick with that strategy for at least that long to see if it will work. These children tend to require additional time and repetition to learn new concepts so it may take even longer than 28 days. Therefore, even when exhausted, it is essential to stick to what the child expects (e.g., removal of privileges, a time­out) rather than to go to a “quick fix” (e.g., yelling and sending him to his room). 

Summary

In summary, it is important to accept your child for who he/she is, disability and all. Their disability does not define them; rather, it is only one part of their identity. 

Research suggests that the more you recognize your child for the strengths and positives that make them who they are, the more they are able to grow stronger in their strengths and to be more resilient. Working from a strength-based model also supports the management of negative behaviours. Therefore, look for opportunities to nurture your child’s strengths, preferably daily. If necessary, make yourself a list of these strengths that you can review every day so that you do not get “bogged down” by the challenges. Also, celebrate even the smallest of improvements. Most importantly, be sure to show your child that you still love him -- even when he forgets his homework. 

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Article originally appeared in Perspectives Magazine Winter 2012. It was updated March 2019.