Part I of a series
Written by Teresa MI Schaefer, PhD
One of my favorite picture books from childhood is The Little Engine That Could. I loved it as a child, loved it as a parent, and, love it as a therapist. It is about CAN. Not just “I think I can.” But I CAN. When I talk to the parents and children I work with, even the adults working with me without children, it is not uncommon for me to refer to this book.
In the field of mental health, just as in the field of medicine, we apply diagnoses to conditions, not only to define the condition we are treating, but also to inform the treatment approach. These diagnoses have utility. Unfortunately, these diagnoses are the proverbial double edge sword.
Some commonly used psychiatric diagnostic terminology include: Learning Disabled, Emotionally Disturbed, Mentally Ill, Major Depressive Disorder, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Outside of clinical use, these words are heavily negatively loaded. They tell us what we can’t do not what we can do. If we assume the identity of disabled, disordered, deficient, or ill, it is likely that we (and others) will pay attention to our disabilities not our strengths. Let’s think about it using the analogy of the glass.
Describe the glass as ½ full and it is lacking. Describe the kid as disabled, disturbed, disordered, deficient and ill and he/she is lacking. Glass ½ full, glass ½ empty – it is the same glass. Can do kid, Can’t do kid – it is the same kid. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Focus on the weaknesses and we feel weak. Focus on the strengths and we feel strong. The glass half full has potential. It meets some of our needs and has the potential to meet all of our needs. Identify our strengths and those strengths may assist us in moderating or managing our weaknesses.
Individuals who identify with their strengths believe in themselves, believe they can and consequently try. Identifying with a deficit or disorder leaves us with limited potential; we simply can’t because we are deficient. Now don’t get me wrong a deficiency is a problem; just as is a disorder, a disability, a weakness. Problems, I would add, that require attention, remediation, accommodation – a solution. This is not always easy but is certainly more complicated if we stop at CAN’T.
So in raising a CAN do kid we need to understand their challenges, their limitations, but even more importantly we need to know their strengths. Those strengths:
are potential assets in managing the weaknesses;
will provide them opportunities for self-fulfillment and positive attention;
will fortify their ego and sense of self;
will allow them to realize what is possible, what they CAN do.
What are your child’s strengths? How can you shine the spotlight on these abilities? Now, let it shine!