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Counseling Youth? Start Here.

By Dr. Donna Mayerson

An intentional strength-based approach in counseling builds a child’s awareness of their internal psychological strengths to deploy in solving problems and building a positive future. It conveys to the child a sincere effort on the counselor’s part to shift the usual focus of “what’s wrong” with the child to “what’s strong” with the child. It extends the purpose of counseling from alleviating distress to achieving desired aspirations. It helps a child build and retain a sense of self-determination as they navigate the journey of their life.

Step 1: Shifting from “what’s wrong” to “what’s strong”

As a counselor, there is a strong pull to focus immediately on the presenting problem. An alternative approach is to say, “Before we talk about what brings you here today, I’d like to get a general sense of who you are.” You can then inquire as to the child’s likes and dislikes and sources of fulfillment. As you listen to their answers you can listen for any of the 24 VIA strengths of character and point those out. These 24 strengths will become the common language you and your client will use in your strengths-based approach. So, you will need to familiarize yourself with these 24 and over time help your client also become familiar. Having a sheet listing the 24 strengths for you and your client to refer to during your sessions can be helpful.

Step 2: Assessing strengths

Formal: After you have identified a few strengths in their self-descriptions you might then suggest that you’d like to get a better sense of all of their many strengths and ask them to take the VIA Youth Survey to do so. It is free and results are immediately available. You can set-up a VIA Pro Site for Youth to have their results directly added to your account.

Informal: If the latter is not feasible, then you can go over the descriptions of the 24 strengths and ask the child to identify which ones describe him or her best.

Indirect: For some children/youth that might be too challenging, and you can instead ask them about their favorite movie/television/book characters, for example, and explore the strengths of those characters. The child may then be able to describe the degree to which they share the characteristic.

Direct observation: If you have the opportunity to directly observe the child in a natural setting such as a classroom, playground, sports, etc., it can be especially effective to recognize strengths in action and later share your strengths observations with the child. When sharing observations, it’s important to provide evidence for the observation to ground it in reality and give it meaning. For example, “Your leadership was evident on the field today. I noticed everyone looking to you for direction on next plays.” Also, you can get perspective on the child’s strengths by asking others who commonly observe the child such as teachers, parents, coaches, etc.

Step 3: Framing the problem as an obstacle towards a desired goal

At that point it is appropriate to return to the presenting problem. For example, “Now that I have a sense of you and your strengths, let’s talk about what brings you here today”. In the exploration of the presenting problem, try to get the child’s perspective of the situation and what this problem is getting in the way of. In other words, “If this problem disappeared, how would your life get better? What would you be able to do that you’d like to do?” This helps activate the child’s motivation to work with you since the discussion becomes more about what they want.

Step 4: Deploying strengths

At that point, after highlighting some important strengths in the child, framing the presenting problem as an obstacle in the way of their desires, and articulating an aspiration, the stage is set to explore together how to mobilize their strengths and resources towards their aspiration, including to remove the problem. For example, “How might your curiosity help you when you’re trying to resolve a difference of opinion with one of your parents.”

Adopting a strengths-based approach to counseling children and youth can enliven your experience and make it a more rewarding and engaging experience for all.