A little over two years ago, my husband and I sat once again in the psychologist’s office, reviewing the fourth and most recent psycho-educational evaluation for our daughter. Her learning difficulties and confusing diagnoses had taken us on a journey through diverse academic settings — from private to public, to special schooling. For the past six years, we had done everything possible to follow the recommendations noted in each of the prior reports with numerous types of therapies, tutoring, interventions and medication. Despite all the interventions, our daughter was not making progress. We needed to do something drastically different.
After patiently listening to the results, I gathered the courage to ask, “where are the strengths in this evaluation?”
With a puzzled look, the psychologist responded. “Strengths? We don’t look at strengths.”
The answer marked a moment of sudden revelation. I finally understood the deficit-based focus of the evaluations that we had done until this moment. I realized that the plan of action and recommendations came from a perspective of fixing and did not take into account developing the areas of strength and potential.
When someone in the family is struggling, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing them through the lens of their disability or struggle. To put most of the efforts on fixing what seems broken. This trap affects not just one member; it affects the relationship dynamic of all the members of the family — there can be much confusion, stress, worry, anxiety and many shed tears. Under these conditions, it can be tough to see each other through a lens of appreciation.
That moment at the psychologist office launched me on a journey to find strengths and a different solution for our daughter, which led me directly to the field of positive psychology.
I value the importance of having a diagnosis. However, to have an effective plan of action, it is imperative to be just as thorough in also evaluating what is currently working. In the words of David Cooperrider, “we must study what gives life to a system and use that to paint a picture of the future”. The identification of strengths and opportunities for nurture and development must be made into a standard practice.
A plan of action with a strengths focus may be the key that opens the door to the brick wall facing many families — precisely what it did for us. In the past two years, I have implemented many changes which have helped put our daughter and our family on a definitive path to healing. I began to study strengths and further my studies by recently completing the Certificate in Positive Psychology with Wholebeing Institute.
One of the many tools I used was the VIA Character Strengths Assessment (Peterson & Seligman) to assess my daughter’s strengths. I also used it to bring to light the strengths of all the members of our family of four. I found the VIA a wonderful tool as it provides a common language for strengths, that can be easily understood and used across generations from youth to adult. To take the VIA Character Strengths Assessment, please visit: www.viacharacter.org
I am a very visual person, and my family is too. In trying to better understand the VIA results, I used my graphic design expertise to create a visual map of our signature strengths as a family (shown below- click on image to view larger version).
This graphic helped us understand, not only our individual signature strengths but our family strengths, allowing for quick reference to see where we connect, how we are different, how we complement each other and see where we can look for support. This graphic was one instance where we could all be, literally, on the same page for the first time.
Having a visual reference consistently reminding us of our unique strengths allowed us to see each other’s strengths in the same light, this way we can leverage and nurture the best in each other consistently. We deepened our family’s culture of appreciation and contributed to creating a dynamic environment in which we all flourish together.
By Giselle Marzo Segura