Positive Psychology and Parenting
“If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all.” Christopher Peterson
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology is a theory largely credited to a psychologist by the name of Martin Seligman. Broadly, it involves the scientific study of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that emphasize strengths instead of weaknesses and seeks ways to optimize our mental health. Seligman incorporates five key factors into his theory, which includes:
- positive emotion,
- meaning, and
Research has shown that incorporating these factors into our daily lives can be particularly powerful in building resilience and better psychological adjustment outcomes. Several researchers have considered how to apply these concepts to our day-to-day parenting interactions.
What is Positive Parenting?
It is no secret that how we interact with our children impacts their well-being. No matter what parenting "style" or experiences guide your parenting decisions, one thing can generally be agreed upon: we all want the best for our kids. It can be easy to slip into a habit of focusing on weaknesses or areas of need. We sometimes feel that our responsibility as parents is to help our children improve on their weaknesses. We assume that their strengths or positive attributes will "take care of themselves". However, positive psychology tells us that positive traits are as important as negative ones and should also be attended to and nurtured. When positive psychology principles are incorporated into parenting practices, it is called Positive Parenting. Simply put, Positive Parenting focuses on bringing out the best in our children by focusing on their strengths. Instead of actively attempting to prevent negative behaviour, it emphasizes recognizing and encouraging positive behaviours. To be clear, however, the theory does not suggest that weaknesses should not be supported or addressed, but rather, that we can create a better parenting balance by focusing efforts on strengths (as well as areas we need to support). It is important to recognize that this will not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and it can take time to achieve the right balance for your family.
Positive Parenting involves a process of identifying a strength within our child, naming, and then praising that strength. The praise motivates them to repeat behaviours associated with the strength and eventually enhance it. Parents are encouraged to support their child through educational and extra-curricular choices that allow them opportunities to integrate and develop their strengths. Studies have shown that a focus on strengths is correlated with life satisfaction and well-being in the child. It is also correlated with a host of positive emotions such as love, gratitude, hope, and enjoyment. Positive Parenting can also be beneficial for the whole family, as it fosters parent-child closeness.
How can I Parent in a Positive Way?
Positive Parenting can be done in many ways:
- through building relationships,
- healthy communication, and
- positively reinforcing the kinds of behaviours we want to see.
Researchers, clinicians and parents have developed and discussed many ways to incorporate these techniques into our parenting interactions. Some to consider are:
- Catch your kids being good! Sometimes positive behaviours are overlooked because we "expect" them to happen. However, the more we can verbalize and encourage the types of behaviours that we want, the more likely they will occur over time. For example, stopping to recognize the completion of a simple task during a busy morning may go a long way (i.e., "Wow! Thank you for getting your shoes on right away, that was so helpful.")
- Validate emotional reactions (good and bad). When our children experience strong emotions, being there to validate how they feel can go a long way in building connections in our relationships. Whether or not we think the emotion is "rational" can be handled at another time. However, what is most important at the moment is to recognize their experience and feelings and support them in that.
- Set clear, consistent, and fair boundaries and expectations. Parenting in a positive way does not mean ignoring that "bad behaviour" occurs or behaving as if it is okay. Discuss age-appropriate expectations as a family and make plans for family rules and reasonable consequences, which will open the lines of communication and keep consistency.
- Take care of yourself! When we have time as parents to engage in self-care, we not only model healthy coping strategies for our kids. It also allows us the time we need to reset and be present for our family.
Positive Parenting for my child with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or Learning Disabilities (LD)
Even though we may have the best intentions, there is no doubt that parenting is hard. Parenting kids with neurodevelopmental disorders creates further challenges in our journey. There are complex interactions between biological, emotional, social and behavioural factors. Children and teens with LDs and ADHD are more vulnerable to mental health problems. They are also more sensitive to the quality of parent-adolescent relations. Some researchers suggest that positive parenting behaviours offer important protective factors for these children. They can also have an impact on adolescent loneliness and self-concept. When we praise our child, it releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brain. Dopamine is involved in regulating emotional responses and taking actions to attain specific rewards. It is also found to be at lower levels in people with ADHD. One expert in the field suggests that children with ADHD may receive about 20,000 more corrective or negative comments than their non-ADHD classmates by the time they are ten years old! Therefore, doing what we can to encourage and enhance positive, strengths-based parenting techniques should be a large focus for these individuals.
Some strategies to help your child with ADHD or LD grow their strengths and boost their dopamine include:
- Celebrate the fact that everyone's brain works differently and that we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. Ask your child to think about their strengths and how they can draw on those strengths to support other areas of their life.
- Praise effort over results. Emphasizing the value of "trying your best" is more important than recognizing when they get the right or wrong answer. For example, after struggling through a hard reading passage, you can say, "I really like how hard you're working at this tough reading! I can see you doing your best at sounding out those tricky words!" Or, if your teen has been studying hard for a long time, say, "It makes me so proud to see you studying so hard today!" This 'process praise' helps kids to develop a growth mindset.
- Use praise wisely! If you want your praise to remain meaningful, make sure it is authentic and specific. Constant gushing can seem insincere and obscure your child's real strengths, as there are no specific talents or characteristics that stand out from the rest.
- Make time for your child to shine! Children with LDs spend a lot of time working on tasks that may be especially taxing or difficult for them. Allowing your child to experience success will boost their confidence and develop their strengths, which might be outside of academic pursuits. Maybe your child is an artist, or has a "green thumb," or perhaps they are developing the world's best chocolate chip cookie recipe! Find ways for them to enjoy activities that breed feelings of fulfilment and success regularly.
To summarize, positive psychology is an area of psychology that emphasizes strengths instead of weaknesses. It can be incorporated into our parenting techniques in many ways. Children with ADHD and LD may be particularly vulnerable to negative messaging and corrective feedback. Taking the time to recognize strengths and praise success can go a long way in building healthy relationships and connections within families. Finally, parenting is a juggling act, made no easier by the unpredictability and added demands of a global pandemic. Remember to be kind to yourself and set realistic expectations. Finding balance and time to focus on the positives in your child (and yourself) can be difficult, but it is a worthwhile endeavour with long-term gains.
Resources for Parents
- Triple P Parenting website
- ADHD Parenting: Positive Parenting
- Book: Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2014). No-drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind (First edition.). New York: Bantam.