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Strength Based Believer

One of the first things I learned at my current workplace is to be “strength based.” Strength based is the idea of focusing on the positives to empower the clients rather than the negatives which can tear them down. It may seem simplistic or even idiotic, but it does have some merit. When I first heard of strength based, I used to think it was ludicrous. I understood that staying positive would empower clients, but what if their actions did not warrant empowerment? How can you empower a child who just drew a picture of a classmate dying a horrible and graphic death? The answer comes from a twist in thinking. Instead of looking to punish negative behaviors, you must reward positives. In theory, rewarding positives encourages those behaviors while negative behaviors fade away. So when Tommy draws a horrible picture, use it as an opportunity to talk about his thoughts, compliment his drawing style and his use of drawing as a coping skill.
It is hard to be strength based because it is often the theme within our culture to just fix things or people. When I first started in the field, my main focus was to fix the problem, but often the problem I was trying to fix was a perceived problem by the social worker and a non issue for the family. When I get a referral for services, I get contact info, providers involved and a few little blurbs on the presenting issues. The presenting issues are the referral writer’s interpretation of the problems. When I first started, I would develop a game plan for myself. Sometimes I did so consciously, sometimes subconsciously, but I was not taking into account the families view. One example was a case I had involving a family of five, the two parents and their two younger biological children as well as an older child from father’s first marriage. The older child was the identified client and my referral sheet stated that I was to do psychoeducation around Aspergers because that was his diagnosis. I went into my first meeting with a large stack of papers and articles dealing with Aspergers, but realized I had jumped the gun. Upon entering the home, the mother was in nurse’s scrubs and explained that she was a nurse on the adolescent floor at Mass General and was well educated about Aspergers through work and her own research upon learning about the oldest son’s diagnosis. For a while I tried to stick with the psychoeducation piece as it was the presenting issue on the referral, but with time I learned it was fruitless. After multiple sessions that lead nowhere, I finally asked the family what they felt they needed to work on. From there on out I was able to help the family address the issues they wanted to work on. There was finally some improvement within the family after working on the issues they felt were pressing. By acknowledging the family as having strengths and not focusing on the problem, I was able to be much more effective.
From my personal experience and in my professional opinion, being strength based is a very effective method in helping others. It shows clients a side of themselves they can take pride in. It also limits the emphasis on the negatives within the family. By focusing on the positives, clients can build self esteem, learn positive behaviors and address problems without putting an emphasis on the negatives. It can be hard to see a silver lining, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Sometimes the positives can be absurd on the surface, but it is important to find the light in the darkest times. Think about it, if you had someone telling you how great you are as opposed to pointing out your mistakes, you might have a better outlook on life yourself.

Christopher Curran, MA

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