When Families Struggle
The quality of parents’ relationships with one another has a lot to do with the adjustment of children. Everything, from having a new sibling to maintaining poise after a disappointing arts or athletic performance can be affected by the consistency with which parents handle their children. According to distinguished child and family researchers and clinicians Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan, coparenting problems disrupt childrens’ development, potentially resulting in undesirable outcomes such as externalized and internalized behavior problems, as well as less-developed skills related to school readiness, including academic and peer skills.
The challenges of parenting, including sleepless nights and limited free time, do not always lend themselves to fun and intimacy. However, in the context of completing one’s education, furthering one’s career, keeping social connections, acquiring a home, or dealing with extended family, co-parenting a child can be exceptionally meaningful and provide “We did it!” growth opportunities for parents. It is important for parents to see themselves as a strengths team working on behalf of the child, even if they are divorced, never married, or not living together with the child.
Stan and Gracie married while they were still both in college. He marveled at her ability to hold down a full-time job and a full-time college schedule. He called her his “can-do” girl and felt blessed to be her husband. Gracie loved Stan’s easy-going manner and found time with him to relax and be spontaneous—two things at which she was not good on her own. Their friends called them the perfect couple. They had two children, a girl and a boy, in quick succession, both of whom developed behavior and learning issues. There was criticism from grandparents (“That sort of thing is not in our gene pool.”) and their friends (“Your kids are so high maintenance.”). By the time their children, Eliza and Jack, were ready for grade school, stresses of homework, sports, and music lessons soured Gracie and Stan’s relationship, and their family life suffered. Jack, in particular, struggled in school, and unlike Lindy, who you read about earlier in the chapter, he did not try to keep up with homework, and his mother felt she had to become the “homework police” in an attempt to keep him from failing.
During a family coaching session, this family (not their real names, of course, but a real family’s graph) created their own novel representation of their strengths (see figure above). Across the bottom are the 24 VIA strengths in their virtue categories. Up the left side are positive and negative numbers. In this model, everyone received 2 boxes above zero (+1 and up on the graph) for a Signature (top five) strength, 1 box for a top ten strength (also +1 and up), and one box below the line (-1 and down) for a bottom five strength. Each of the four family members is represented by a different shade. (Strengths between 11 and 19 are not represented in this family’s model. That was their choice.)
When the last box was colored in, Eliza, who was often critical of her brother, spoke up. “Look at how many strengths we share, Jack! There’s teamwork, fairness, hope, creativity, and humor.” As you look at the graph, notice the abundance of strengths evident. Everyone, not just the kids, shares teamwork and fairness, and three of the four share creativity, gratitude, and humor. Because everyone is shown as a different shade, their combined strengths power, as well as their individual contributions, remain clear.
How does this family’s shadow strengths come alive on their graph? Jack noticed, “I need to borrow some humanity and temperance. Is that why I don’t do my homework? Can any other strengths stand in for those?” “Stan,” Gracie mused, “we know we are so different from each other, and on the graph I can really see where you have strengths that I don’t. Even when I am frustrated with you and the kids, I still love all of you and am grateful for tomorrow to keep trying to make things better. There it is, right on the graph!”
Let’s fast forward to a few months later. Jack is now doing most of his homework, Gracie has retired from the homework police, Stan has used his curiosity strength to learn new ways to use his other strengths, Eliza and Jack are laughing with rather than at each other, and the whole family understands when everyone wants the team to work a certain way, their fairness buttons might get pushed. This family (a real one) is SMART.