Why can’t a strength remain a strength?

two hands just meLots of people in my family are ambidextrous.  My grandfather could use his right or left hand interchangeably and so could my dad.  Once, before going on a trip to Germany, my dad had lots of pre-trip shots and his right arm swelled up.  He had begun painting a room and needed to finish before he left. “I love being able to use either hand,” he said and promptly painted the room using his left hand.

My son was also two-handed and I was glad for him, thinking it was an advantage.  He colored with either hand in preschool and couldn’t understand why he had to hold a fork in his left hand and knife in his right.  “Can’t I just switch when I feel like it?” he asked.

When his mental health problems hit like an avalanche, I would remind myself of all of his strengths.  Smart, curious, creative and cute were on my list.  So was being able to use either hand.

He landed in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt at age seven and three more hospitalizations followed.  He had just turned eight when his doctor called for a neuropsychological exam.  When I sat down to listen to the results, it was devastating.  I heard the word psychosis for the first time. The report listed problems with attention, wild mood swings, suicidal thoughts and intense anxiety.  Then the psychologist casually added that being ambidextrous was “a soft neurological sign.”  Just like that, what I’d thought of as a strength got moved into the problems list.

One of the things that keeps parents like me going is focusing on the wonderful things about our children, particularly on the very bad days.  They might have a sense of humor or a strong sense of generosity or fairness.  They can be pretty smart (even if they can’t always apply it to school work) or write or draw beautifully.  Since many of the meetings with professionals or reports on our child’s needs detail their challenges and focus on their problems, we can feel downright discouraged.  For me, reminding myself of my son’s strengths was a kind of ritual to ward off the negative thinking.

Parents know that a diagnosis or evaluation opens doors to services.  It’s an important tool for advocating for our son or daughter. However, we can’t run a family that way.  Parents want to cherish what makes their child interesting, loveable and special.  We know they will face formidable challenges and every item we deem positive is fiercely protected.

Linda, a mother of a teenage daughter, told me she had been proud and even in awe of her daughter’s ability to draw and paint from the time she was small. The artwork was beautiful and emotional.  When her daughter became severely depressed and was harming herself, her art showed a darker side, and Linda, viewing it with a mother’s eyes, found it alarming at times.  Her daughter’s art teacher agreed that she had remarkable talent but said other students found some pictures upsetting.  “Can you ask her to draw different, maybe happier, subjects?” Linda was asked.  Linda felt that her daughter’s talent, once seen as something to encourage was now being seen as something to contain.

In a strengths-based approach, there is a deliberate move from defining the problem and its solutions, to identifying the strengths in an individual, family or even an environment.   A situation might be reframed from “this child is truant from school” to “the child still attends school and is strong willed” or from “family is in constant crisis” to “family has had stress for a long time but has survived together and has strengths.”  This focus on resilience and the potential pluses in a situation is an important move in the right direction.

But when parents focus on strengths, they think about the individual strengths of their child, themselves or other family members.  It’s personal and each strength is like a winning number on a lottery scratch ticket.  Get enough of them and we might win a prize. It’s okay if it’s a small one.

A friend of mine reminded me that each trait our children have can be seen as a strength or deficit depending on who is doing the assessing. If my son played baseball, she said, he would be rewarded for being a switch hitter.  I think I’ll move being ambidextrous back onto the strengths column.

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One thought on “Why can’t a strength remain a strength?

  1. A great reminder that though specialists have vast knowledge of certain subjects, their focus is restricted. We should never let other’s opinion of of child change what we know is great about them. Remind them constantly of your own biased view of their strengths lest they believe the ‘experts’ and loose that strength.

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