“Being present” is a phrase a lot of people use these days, especially when it comes to raising our children. We want to be mentally and emotionally present, but that isn’t as simple as it once was, now that we parents are distracted by our devices and the expectations that come with them. We live in a culture that calls for us to be available to everyone as soon as a text or app notification dings, and so our minds are repeatedly separating from what’s in front of us so we can focus on our phones.
In their new book “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired,” authors Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson outline what children need to feel from their parents, which they call the Four S’s: Safe, Seen, Soothed and Secure.
Based on new brain and attachment research, the authors explain how parents can create a safe, secure environment for their children, so they can grow into confident, loving adults. Perhaps most important, Siegel and Bryson want to remind us that no parent is perfect, and that’s okay.
“I think as parents, we’re so fearful that we’re not doing right by our children; we really wanted to share the research so they can just relax a little bit and really enjoy their children,” Bryson said. “We don’t have to be perfect; we can just be present.
Here, the two (who also wrote “The Whole-Brain Child”), discuss what parents can do to help their children grow into successful, content, secure adults.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you write this book? What’s the question you’re trying to answer?
Bryson: The science in this book has been really foundational to all of our other work. When we look at two big issues that come up for today’s parents, one is the drive for hyper-parenting where you do everything, be everything and provide every opportunity for our kids. Science is saying no, you don’t need to do all of that. And the second set of parents are those who aren’t really showing up at all. They’re really more checked out, overwhelmed, distracted and overscheduled. The answer to both groups of parents: They really just need to show up and be present.
Siegel: We wanted to take that science and translate it into useful concepts that allow people to realize there’s no such thing as perfect parenting, but there are some truths about what is important for helping kids thrive. So we distilled the attachment literature into the Four S’s so we could prepare parents’ minds to have a direction to take, and so they can course-correct when things don’t go right.
What does it mean to “show up?"
Siegel: On the one hand, you can interpret it like “Every recital, I gotta show up physically.” But it’s really a state of mind we call presence. It’s that you’re available in awareness, receptive to moments to connect with your child, able to stay with them at the moment when they are feeling distressed and uncomfortable. A parent who distracts a child or tells them not to feel that way would be the opposite of showing up. So showing up means they are known by me, and they know I have their back.
How are devices detracting from our ability to “show up” for our kids?
Bryson: Devices are a part of our world, and we may need them some of the time. But when we are having a conversation with our kids, playing with them, out walking with them, we are tuning in to their experience. One of the examples I love to give is if I imagine pushing one of my kids in a stroller down the street. I may say, “Wow, did you see that big truck? Did you see how big those tires are?” But if I’m scrolling through Instagram while pushing my kid, I’m not saying anything to him. That just shows the difference between being physically present but not engaged with our child. You don’t have to do that every second of every day, but it’s important that we have times every day of joining with our child.
What does “showing up,” or as you say, providing a secure attachment, do for our children?
Bryson: Secure attachment is providing not perfect but predictable sensitive and attuned care. That’s what we mean when talking about the Four S’s. So that ultimately our kids have secure attachment, where their brain is wired to know if they have a need, someone will show up and take care of them. What that leads to is being able to show up for themselves.
What happens when parents goof?
Bryson: Sometimes, we make mistakes. We use a scary voice or lose control of ourselves where we act in ways that are unpredictable. We absolutely will make those mistakes and be imperfect. The key is repair. We go to our children and make things right. As long as we do those repairs, not only are we not damaging the relationship, it’s building deeper connection and intimacy. But it also builds resilience for handling conflict. If we were lovely to our children every second, the first time they have a conflict with a friend would be difficult.
Siegel: The attitude we take toward these difficult moments can create its own cycle of distress. It’s a win-win situation to reframe those ruptures, disconnections. It’s inevitable in human relationships and also an opportunity to see these as moments to reconnect and build resilience. I can always start again and build the circuitries of resilience.
What do you hope parents learn from this book?
Bryson: It’s never too late to start making a change. If you start showing up for your kids in better ways, it starts a relationship and changes what’s firing and wiring in their brain. We really cannot beat ourselves up about the things we’re not doing as parents.
Siegel: Parents who say apologizing is a sign of weakness? Actually, it’s a real sign of strength to be able to say “I’m human. What I did two minutes ago, I don’t think that was a great way to go.” Instead of being weak, it teaches them how strong you are.
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