Put on your SSHADES! Using a strength-based approach to empower teens

The strength-based approach to screening and counselling adolescents in clinical settings has been proven to help build resilience. Developing resilience helps kids handle failure, which is an important predictor of life success as an adult. Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a wonderful group of pediatricians from across the Netherlands about working with teens and the use of a tool called SSHADES which starts with asking teens about their unique abilities.

Dutch general pediatricians and health providers often see adolescents in their practices for vague complaints such as fatigue, headaches and stomach pain. In some cases, these complaints could be linked to more complex issues such as depression, stress or anxiety. As adults, we tend to focus on a teen’s problem or complaint as opposed to the underlying issue leading to. Using the SSHADES questions allows providers, educators and caregivers to understand more of what is happening in a teen’s life and how best to support them.

SSHADES stands for:

·        S stands for strengths i.e., the unique abilities or positive attributes of a person. As mentioned, asking teens what they perceive as unique abilities is a fascinating way to start a discussion with a young person and can be very revealing.

·        S stands for school life. I often ask young people what subjects they enjoy and if they are having difficulties in school. I also ask them what their dreams are for the future.

·        H is for home life: who they live with and how they get along with them.

·        A is for activities (including screen time). I often ask about sleep and at what time they go to bed.

·        D is for drug and alcohol use, plus diet and body image. In asking teens about these issues, I often ask them about their peer group and what kind of activities they do together. I also them about what they see when they look at themselves in the mirror and if they are happy about it.

·        E for emotions (including depression and suicidal thoughts). It’s very important to ask young people about their mood and whether they have ever self-harmed or felt as if life is not worth living. It’s always worth asking, it doesn’t increase their chance of self-injury, but it may be instrumental in starting to provide support.

·        S stands for sexual health and safety: questions that are important to ask but often aren’t, for fear of reprisal.

The SSHADES tool is ordered from the issues that are the easiest to the most difficult to discuss. The strength-based approach can be used in many settings, including at home and at school. I taught our group of pediatricians to take time to ask kids what they feel they do best in, whether it’s arts, music, sport or just being good at listening to others. Building on strengths is important in best supporting kids though challenges and in preventing young people from engaging in other high-risk behaviors. I often go back to a teen’s unique ability at the end of a visit, to discuss how they can continue to build on their strength.   

According to a recent article published by the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, ‘Helping Teens Build their Best Selves’, recognizing strengths does more than just help teens feel good about themselves. It positions them to understand that they possess the capacity to do the right thing, to move beyond temporary setbacks, and to correct mistaken decisions.

So, go ahead and put on your SSHADES and start asking kids what they do best as one way to start those difficult discussions and get them to focus on their strengths.