As a clinical social worker supporting adolescents and their families all across Australia we are often asked the difficult question of why people change, and why they may continue to partake in self-defeating thinking or behaviours when they know they are hurting themselves or others.
When we are caring for others we often get stuck in thinking traps like: “You would think that he or should would know what they are doing!”
However, people to this day continue destructive lifestyles even after traumatic events. For example, why did my father continue smoking two packs of cigarettes a day after having an horrific heart attack? And why did my aunt choose to ignore all breast cancer experts despite being so ill that the disease ultimately took her life?
In my field of working with troubled teenagers and their families we often get asked: “Shouldn’t he know that school will eventually help him land a steady job?” or “Doesn’t she see that her current risky behaviours and substance abuse are hurting her?”
These thoughts are so normal but they do not always help our loved ones find the changes that lead to a higher quality of life. What can we can do in our personal lives and with our loved ones to help find a more positive path?
In our practice with True North Expeditions we use the VIA Institute’s Survey of Character Strengths to allow our adolescent students and their families to get an idea of their unique areas of strength and potential capabilities. The survey is a scientifically validated self-assessment tool and can be completed in less than 30 minutes online for free. Psychologists and practitioners leading the field of positive psychology developed the questionnaire to help individuals gain more awareness into what makes them who they really are.
It’s important to note that shame, guilt and embarrassment are not great predictors for motivating someone to change. The reason behind behaviour and personal growth plans need to match with a person’s unique character strengths and resources in order increase the likelihood of being a successful step forward.
In parenting, it’s important to know where our children’s strengths lie, and to encourage these to continue moving forward.
I aim to find strength in certain behaviours in order to shift the behaviour to becoming more positive. For example, we work with many students dealing with depression and heightened anxiety that may be highly introverted and struggle with setting emotional goals as they can often seem abstract and unclear.
An introverted child may benefit from writing his or her thoughts in a journal instead of talking aloud. Many of these children surpass all of us in skills of self-reflection! Instead of continuing to have dead-end conversations, it may be possible to write deep and meaningful letters or prepare for conversations instead of arguing on the spot.
When we know this we can help them on a level that encourages their strengths in a productive manner. It is in understanding as parents and practitioners where our children tap strength so we can better match our own parenting styles to meet them.
Often our child’s acting out, depression or negative thinking patterns are viewed as self-destructive and it can really take its toll on the household. In helping our children, peers or partners it’s absolutely critical that we take our own judgments and bias out of the equation. Most problem behaviour is not consciously trying to hurt other people.
If we can view their challenging behaviour as a coping skill, that has the intention of gaining personal power and a positive feeling, then we can view the issues from neutral ground. This becomes very difficult when we are living with loved ones that are hurting themselves and the family. The difference is that we are taking our own action in helping them.
Similar to the Serenity Prayer, we’re going to focus on the changes that we can control. And unfortunately, we can only change ourselves.
But in this positive change we can lead the way for family members and our children. But first, we need to encourage those things which are good, continue acting based on our own personal strengths and help our children find what their strengths are.
When times get difficult, try to find the things that are working and see if we can make them multiply.
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If you are interested in taking the VIA Institute’s Character Survey you can do so here: https://www.viame.org/survey/Account/Register