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Why We Need to ‘Show Up’ to Successfully Parent Ourselves

by DANIEL J. SIEGEL, M.D.

Raising a human being is a profoundly challenging task—if you are having a tough time, you are not alone. When caregiving is experienced as a burden, this important job can feel overwhelming, distressing, and sometimes even terrifying. Instead, when providing nurturing for children and adolescents is experienced as a part of lifelong learning, the ups and the downs of being a parent can transform a daunting role into a privilege.

But how do we transform our parenting experience from barely surviving to happily thriving? One way to accomplish this important mental shift is to consider what practical lessons have been gleaned from the careful scientific study of parent-child relationships across many cultures. These profoundly helpful insights from attachment research on everyday caregiving can be summarized with the following principles that we can readily remember as the Four S’s: Seen, Soothed, Safe, and Secure.

Ultimately these Four S’s can be boiled down into one: Showing Up. And amazingly, if you apply these S’s to your relationship with your child–as they grow into adolescents and young adults–research suggests they will be most likely to develop resilience. That’s parenting with security in mind.

And here is the amazing finding for our discussion of taking leave to “parent yourself”: If you apply these same principles to yourself, you’ll be “parenting yourself from the inside out” and help transform your “overwhelm” into “opportunity.”

My research training through the National Institute of Mental Health was to study a scientifically grounded assessment called the Adult Attachment Interview. What this AAI found, among many amazing discoveries, was that it wasn’t so much what happened to us as children that determined how we parented—instead, it was how we MADE SENSE of what happened to us—how our own childhood experiences shaped our development as we grew toward adulthood. The great news of that powerful finding is that even if your own childhood experiences didn’t provide you with the Four S’s, you could still get the help you need by integrating them into your own life.

And so taking “leave” to parent yourself is really leaving the old patterns behind—which sometimes requires a mental shift or calendar break in your routine, habitual ways of behaving and being—and then actively creating states of self-care and compassion so that you create a trait of being kind and open. In this way, “taking leave” is really leaving old ways behind to grow new, supportive, ways of showing up for yourself. Sometimes physically getting away from the day-to-day patterns is essential to make this shift in our mental stance. As you do this, showing-up for others, including your kids, will no longer be the overwhelming, draining, distressing experience it may have often come to be in your life.

The S’s in shorthand:

  1. Seen: This means focusing your attention on the inner world of your child, not just their behavior. This enables them to feel felt by you. For “self-care,” this means developing what I call your “mindsight skills” of being able to focus on and respect your inner, subjective experience, your mind. One way to do this is to SIFT your mind and become open as a starting place to your sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. When we do this with an open, caring, kind frame of mind, we bring a curious, open, accepting, and loving state of mind to our experience.
  2. Soothed: When our child is distressed, we empathically pick up their discomfort and compassionately respond, reflecting on what to do, and then doing something—even by simply being present—to help reduce their distress. With self-care, we parent ourselves from the inside out by tuning in to our own discomfort instead of trying to ignore it or berate ourselves for having it. Whatever we may resist actually grows stronger. So being caring. open, accepting and loving (COAL) about whatever is happening, as it is happening, helps us accept our inner life to let it integrate into our overall well-being, ultimately soothing our own distress.
  3. Safe: For our children, this means that we protect them from harm and also do not become a source of terror for them. If we do—since there is no such thing as perfect parenting—we then detect the rupture and make a repair when we are ready. For self-care, this means not terrifying ourselves with “shoulds” and internal attacks claiming that we are not doing things right. We learn to treat ourselves like we would a best friend, with kindness and nurturing as well as protection and support.
  4. Secure: For our children, providing consistent experiences which are readily repaired when ruptures of the three S’s of being seen, soothed, and safe have inevitably occurred, leads to the construction of an internal mental model, a way of feeling in the world, of security. For self-care, this security is the resilience of knowing, from the inside out, that we are good, worthy of being seen, soothed, and safe, and that we can be cared for in this life.

In many ways, these Four S’s come from the overall fifth “S” of showing up. We are present for our kids and they know it through and through. And when we apply these Four S’s to our own self-care, we come to experience the true power of presence in our lives—to show up fully for the gift and privilege of being alive, here and now.

If you are interested in exploring how to cultivate more presence and learn how to show up more fully for yourself and your children, you can explore Parenting from the Inside Out (which I wrote with the late Mary Hartzell) or try out the Wheel of Awareness practice at my website and through my last book, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.

DANIEL J. SIEGEL, M.D.

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