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What is strengths based counseling?

Strengths based counseling is exactly what it says — it’s therapy that assumes the client has talents and skills to build on. Doesn’t that seem obvious? But it’s actually a fairly recent theoretical shift. Not that individual counselors weren’t already building on strengths but for the industry as a whole, it’s kinda newfangled.

In practice what this means is that if someone comes to a therapist’s office with a big huge problem, feeling like the sum of their big huge problem, (which is normal when you’ve felt stuck, frustrated or discouraged), we’re going to actively look for what they’re doing right. We’re going to be looking for the inner wisdom the client might not realize they have.

Most of us — in the counseling world and out — are used to looking for our deficits because we’re used to seeking out areas where we can improve. In school, in job performance reviews, in our personal lives, we set goals based in large part on what we’re not doing. We want to get more organized (never mind any organizational skills we’ve already mastered); we want to be more focused (never mind that our busy creativity has served us well); we want to be taller, faster, stronger, prettier and just all around better.

Improvement is good but it’s a whole lot easier to improve if we are able to build on something that’s already there. If we do have organizational skills in one area — say in cooking — how can we bring those strengths to bear in another area? Or we might need to change our ideas about how focus should look to accommodate our strengths in quick changes.

Here’s an example of how strengths based parenting counseling might look.

Let’s say Ramona Quimby’s parents (Robert and Dorothy) come to my office. This is Ramona circa Ramona and Her Mother. This is a tough time for the Quimby family; dad is coming off a scary stint of unemployment but is working a job he doesn’t like. They’ve gone from a one stay-at-home parent family to a two-working-parents family, which is a big adjustment for the kids, and yet financially they’re worse off because their two incomes don’t equal Robert’s old one income. Ramona is staying after school with Howie’s grandmother and she doesn’t like it very much. Big sister Beezus is at a “difficult” age where she’s starting to get moody and dramatic and more peer-oriented, which is challenging some of the values that the family holds dear. The parents are fighting more, too, and this scares Ramona who is afraid they’re going to get a divorce.

Let’s say the Quimbys come to me because Ramona wore her pajamas to school under her clothes the other day, which seems a little weird, and because she’s packed her bags to run away once. (This is all in the book.)

The Quimbys are stressed and worried about life in general and Ramona in particular. They’re afraid that they’ve handled these big changes wrong. Robert alternately worries that he’s spoiling Ramona by not being too strict or by being way too strict (because his own parents were pretty stern as per this line he quotes from his own mother, “First time’s funny, second time’s silly, third time’s a spanking” featured in Ramona and her Father). Maybe the parents are even fighting about this a little bit.

So they come into my office and they’re feeling lousy. They’re worried I’m going to think they’re lousy parents and they’re worried that they are lousy parents.

But the Quimbys are great parents! And they have great kids! I’m going to ask them about the problem that brought them in to my office but I’m also going to ask them questions meant to ferret out all the things that they’re doing right. This isn’t just for me, it’s for them, too; together we’re going to build on those things. Besides I want them to leave my office feeling hopeful that things can get better.

Change is hard and it can be slow so if they don’t have their strengths in mind, it’s easy to get so discouraged that they give up before they even start.

In our sessions, we’re going to talk about all the ways that they have been tuned in and responsive to their children’s needs and how they have weathered the challenges of parenting a spirited child like Ramona. We’re going to talk about the strength of their relationship and I’ll ask them about other times they’ve been in conflict with each other and how they came through those difficult periods. Because I’ve read books ahead in the series, I know that Robert really likes kids (he eventually goes back to school to be an art teacher) and I bet that’ll come out in our discussions. I’ll note that he’s creative — like Ramona, maybe? — and I’ll ask him how this gives him insight into what’s happening for her.

When the parents are feeling good — or at least better — about where they already are, it’s going to be easier to make any of the changes that they need to make. As we plan those changes we’ll be able to lean on their identified strengths. In Ramona’s family, that means their strong relationships, the parents’ understanding of their girls and their interest and willingness to become more educated about Ramona’s developmental and temperamental needs.

A strengths based perspective doesn’t start with advice and techniques; it starts with listening. The advice and techniques are customized to the family’s interests and abilities and it’s assumed that they have strengths that matter just as much — if not more — than any weaknesses that might need shoring up.

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