If you were a child (or rebellious teenager), which phrase do you think would be more beneficial to hear? 1 – “You run away from home which exposes you to dangerous people, places, and things” or 2 – “You are strong-willed with “street-smarts”, survival skills and self-protective abilities”. Both phrases describe the same issue, but are worded very differently. The first phrase focuses on the problem while the second identifies strengths that could potentially aid in finding a solution.
At Excelsior Youth Center, we choose to focus on strengths so we can embrace the positive. This helps us keep our girls motivated and engaged in treatment. Our girls are all too aware of their shortcomings and have too often been told that they are not good enough. At Excelsior, we positively frame situations to emphasize our girls’ strongest traits so they are reminded that they possess powerful qualities they can use to overcome adversity.
This is the basis of strength-based care – to build on the positive and reframe the negative. Strength-based practitioners view children as having potential, rather than problems. Working from the belief that all children have strengths and are innately resourceful, Excelsior reframes challenges to showcase the strengths hidden within. This approach allows us to see opportunities, hope, and solutions instead of problems, deficits, and vulnerabilities. With a strength-based approach, we support and reinforce our girls’ functioning by concentrating on facilitating success rather than fixing problems. Excelsior’s Clinical Director, Carol Beauchamp-Hunter, describes why we use a strength-based approach: “We believe in empowering our clients and discovering the unique talents and skills that our clients and families possess. It’s important to collaborate with all those involved and build on their skills. At the same time we will hold clients accountable while acknowledging their strengths.”
The Problem with Focusing on Problems
For years, mental health providers have embraced the belief that if a problem is identified, an expert can prescribe a solution. While this approach is often efficient, it leads to generic labeling which limits a person’s options and obscures their unique capabilities and strengths (Source). This generalized approach not only ignores the potential that can arise from adversity, but uses a language conducive to negativity and failure: “The deficiency language has created a world of description that understands only through what is wrong, broken, absent, or insufficient”. (Source) This approach assumes we can best understand people if we understand their problems; it assumes there is little to be learned about a person by their strengths.
For Excelsior girls, this approach is ineffective because it labels them as defective in some way, causing them to feel hopeless and incapable of change. When they are shown only what they lack, they see a black hole that they want desperately to fill. However, too often they can find nothing of value with which to fill it. Instead, Excelsior uses a strength-based approach so our girls can focus on the strengths they do have which positively reinforces their abilities and encourages them to take an active role in their recovery. It is important to note that this approach does not attempt to ignore the problem – it simply attempts to identify a positive foundation from which they can begin to address their challenges.
Excelsior Youth Center’s Principles of Strength-Based Care
- Focus on Strengths rather than Weaknesses – We believe that each girl has potential and that it is her unique strengths and capabilities that define her, not her limitations. We see challenges as opportunities to discover and enhance hidden strengths.
- Believe that Change is Inevitable – We believe that all our girls possess the inherent capacity and desire to grow, learn, and change. We believe all our girls have the urge to succeed, explore the world around them, learn new things, and make themselves useful to others.
- Respect Self-Determination – We believe each girl has the right and responsibility to participate in her treatment plans. Providing the girls with some control over their own lives breeds confidence and a sense of ownership, which encourages increased engagement in the recovery process.
- Empowerment and Capacity-Building is a Process and a Goal – We strive to reduce the feelings of powerlessness that come with problems by building upon the resources and tools our girls already have. We believe our girls empower themselves with the help of experts, not the other way around. Finally, we teach our girls that building one’s capacities and resources is a dynamic, lifelong journey.
- Effective Change Requires Collaboration – We value differences and believe sustainable solutions involve the suggestions and creativity of everyone involved. We believe effective change is a collaborative, inclusive and participatory process.
- Change Occurs in the Context of Authentic Relationships –We believe our girls need to know that someone cares about them and will be there for them unconditionally. Too many of our girls have experienced abandonment and inconsistent relationships; they need to form authentic relationships with adults to feel a sense of belonging and safety.
How a Positive Perspective Empowers Excelsior Girls
Albert Einstein once said, “Our problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness at which they were created. Hence, we need a new place to come from.” When we approach problems from the root of the problem, we often get stuck. Starting from the standpoint of “what’s right with people” gives us a different perspective and a promising springboard to start from.
At Excelsior, when we build upon our girls’ strengths, they find hope and optimism. As their good qualities are highlighted and enhanced, our girls begin to feel capable and appreciated. They begin to take responsibility for their own treatment and lives as they are empowered by their own strength. As their self-esteem and sense of competence increases, they become more resilient and can confront challenges head-on because they know that they have the strengths and tools they need to succeed. When we believe in our girls, they begin to believe in themselves.