Home All Strengths-based Parenting (#CPPA2016)

Strengths-based Parenting (#CPPA2016)

written by Kathryn Britton 30 June 2016

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

The third biennial Canadian Positive Psychology Conference was held in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Lake Ontario not far from Niagara Falls in southern Canada from June 15 through June 17.

Following preconference workshops, the conference opened with Dr. Robert Vallerand discussing the state of positive psychology: where it is today, where it is going. It closed with a keynote by Caroline Miller on Authentic Grit on Friday. In between there were many choices for every participant, from multi-speaker symposia on topics such as The Science of Hope and Exploring Best Practices with Character Strengths to workshops on coaching language, ritual and play, feedforward, and other positive psychology applications.

To see the full range of speakers and programs, check out the online program. I understand that slides and recordings for some of the presentations may become available on the Canadian Positive Psychology Association website, at least for members.

Thinking about the conference gives me a chance to prolong the experience by savoring it. Perhaps in the process I can alert Positive Psychology News readers to ideas worth watching. Let me start with the opening keynote.

Strengths-based Parenting

Dr. Lea Waters is the founding director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Positive Psychology, which runs the only MAPP program in the Southern Hemisphere. She gave the initial keynote on the topic of strengths-based parenting. She started by inviting the audience to check out The Strengths Exchange. According to the site, “The Strengths Exchange brings together stories of character strengths from children, teenagers and parents across different countries to encourage families to start conversations about the strengths within them.” There are many short videos of children talking about their own strengths and the strengths they see in others. In most, the children answer the following questions:

  • What are your top 5 character strengths?
  • How do you use those strengths?
  • What strengths do you notice in others?
  • What strengths do you think are important in a happy family?
  • What strengths do you want to build?

Dr. Waters told us the story of how she shifted her research focus from workplace well-being to strengths-based parenting. When she had her own children, she looked through the psychology literature and found hardly any studies of parenting practices in peer-reviewed psychology journals. The research on parenting that had been performed tended to focus on the long term effects of negative parenting styles. In other words, most of the research tells what we should not do, rather than what we should do. In a reception at Martin Seligman’s house in 2011, Dr. Waters asked him for the names of the leading researchers on positive psychology and parenting. He responded, “Nobody. Why don’t you do it?”

Dr. Waters had been working with young adults in the workplace, but Dr. Seligman’s challenge pushed her to ask herself, “Why start at age 24 when we could start at age 4?”

There were many aspects of positive psychology that she could have pursued, but she decided to anchor her research on strengths. She doesn’t restrict herself to one strengths model, looking at character strengths (VIA), talents (Gallup), and capacities (Realise2). She has been exploring questions such as,

  • What impact does it have for parents to know their children’s strengths?
  • What happens when they help their children recognize their own strengths?
  • What happens when parents take action to help their children use their strengths more fully?

Life Satisfaction of Teenagers

For example, Dr. Waters and her team conducted a study of life satisfaction in teenagers. To explore ways to explain the variance, they asked the study participants how well they agreed with statements such as the two below:

  • “My parents are warm, loving, firm, and fair.”
  • “My parents show me how to use my strengths.”

They found that having warm and loving parents explained 16% of the variance in life satisfaction in the study, while having parents that focus on strengths explained an additional 19% of the variance. This encouraged Dr. Waters to see strengths-based parenting as a separate construct from warmth and affection.

So what is the underlying process?

So what is strengths-based parenting?

“Strength-based parenting is an approach where parents deliberately identify and cultivate positive states, processes and qualities in their children. This style of parenting adds a ‘positive filter’ to the way a child reacts to stress.” ~ Dr. Waters quoted in a University of Melbourne press release

In the process of noticing positive processes and states, parents help their children see them as well.

Dr. Waters suggests that having a strengths-based parent changes the way a child sees the world. So for example, knowing that they have warm and loving parents can give young people the courage to go out to explore the world because they know they have safe bases at home. But helping them understand and use their strengths gives them tools for exploring the world more effectively.

Positive Interventions

Strengths-based parenting can be deliberately cultivated. Dr. Waters discussed a 4 week intervention with parents with a study group of 72 parents and a wait-list control group of 65 parents. The research team measured levels of positive emotion towards children and perceived self-efficacy as parents before and after the interventions. There were significant increases in both measures in the study group after the intervention designed to help parents become more effective at strengths-based parenting.

Dr. Waters is working on a book titled The Strong Child: Building resilience, optimism and achievement to be published by Penguin Press next year. The book will include practical aids such as surveys, strengths role models, strengths spotting approaches, strengths letters, and stories from the collection that is accruing on the Strengths Exchange website. Watch for this important new book.

For those of us whose children are grown, it’s never too late to work on helping your children—and others around you—get better at perceiving their own strengths and putting them to use in daily life.

Watch for the next CPPA installment on Barbara Fredrickson speaking about prioritizing positivity.




Waters, L. (2015). The relationship between strength-based parenting with children’s stress levels and strength-based coping approaches. Psychology, 6: 689-699.

Waters, L. (2015). Strength-based parenting and life satisfaction in teenagers. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 2(11). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.14738/assrj.211.1651. Abstract.

Fox Eades, J. (2008). Celebrating Strengths: Building Strengths-based Schools. UK: Capp Press.

Kern, M., Waters, L., Adler, A., & White, M. (2014). A multifaceted approach to measuring wellbeing in students: Application of the PERMA framework. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 262-271.

Melbourne Newsroom (2015, 26 May). Strength-based parenting improves children’s resilience and stress levels.

Quinlan, D., Swain, N., & Vella-Brodrick, D. (n.d.) Character strengths in the school context. Online presentation.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.

VIA Institute of Character (n.d.). VIA Character Strengths In Positive Education (And Children/Youth). List of research reports on this subject.

Photo Credit:
via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses:
Niagara Falls in Canada courtesy of elsagrts
Warm family courtesy of normalityrelief
Child with humor courtesy of aqua.mech

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