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Why ‘Showing Up’ For Your Child Is Crucial For Healthy Development

by SUSAN PASCAL

In his new book (with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.), “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired,” renowned child psychiatrist Dan Siegel, Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, says being ever-present in our children’s lives is the single most important thing we can do as parents for their well-being. He asserts that one of the very best scientific predictors for how any child turns out—in terms of happiness, academic success, leadership skills, and meaningful relationships—is whether at least one adult in their life has consistently shown up for them.

1. You state that there are four building blocks for a child’s healthy development, the “Four S’s.” What are they and why are they so critical?

The science of attachment—the ways children connect to their parents—reveals that how we as caregivers communicate with our kids shapes how they develop through their childhood, adolescence, and even influences how they will be as adults. That research can be boiled down to four S’s:

  1. How we keep our children safe, meaning how we protect them from harm but also aren’t a source of terror in their lives;
  2. How we see our children, focusing our attention on their internal experience, not just their externally visible behavior;
  3. How we soothe our children, providing the compassionate communication enabling our kids to have their distress perceived, made sense of, and responded to in a timely and effective manner that helps them to feel comforted; and,
  4. How when we are safe, seen and soothed—and when disruptions in these first three S’s inevitably occur (there is no such thing as perfect parenting!), a reconnection is established—we then develop an inner model of being secure. 

Longitudinal studies (now over forty years in length) have found that the best predictor of our children becoming emotionally resilient adolescents and then adults–individuals who can regulate their emotions well, meet their intellectual potential and have mutually rewarding close relationships–is if they’ve had a secure attachment with us.

And what is the best way of giving children security in their relationships with us? The most powerful predictor of a child’s security of attachment is whether we as parents have “made sense” of our lives. Even if negative experiences happened in the past, even if we’ve had insecurity in our own attachments, research reveals that parents who take the time to make sense of how the past has impacted their development will have children with secure attachments to them. That is fabulous news! And this is the reason making sense of your life as a parent makes so much sense to do—it is a gift that keeps on giving!

When we use the phrase “showing up,” it’s the simple term that helps us see how we can provide these four S’s for our kids. But a fifth “S,” you can see, is how we do “sense-making” in reflecting on our adaptations to the past. Showing up with the four S’s is the key. And guess what? We can not only show up for our kids, but we can also show up for ourselves, too!

2. How can we focus on putting devices down and create quality time with our kids?

Eyes up, devices down—that’s a simple way of focusing our attention on what matters: Showing up for our kids. Face-to-face interactions are the ideal, in-person, real-time connection that teaches our kids the important but challenged arts of conversation and relationship. Research reveals relationships are the key to well-being and proper child development. And relationships are also the best predictor of how we, as adults, will do in life in terms of our own mental and medical health, our happiness, and even our longevity. Showing up for our kids teaches them the important skills of how to connect in mutually rewarding ways as they grow toward adulthood. Now that we know the basic four S’s kids need to develop resilience and grit, to cultivate social and emotional intelligence, we can remind ourselves that this does not happen when everyone–child, adolescent, or adult–are often preoccupied with their devices.

What’s the problem with spending time on those devices? Instead of cultivating “mindsight,” our ability to perceive the mind’s feelings, thoughts, and memories, we build “physical sight,” a perceptual ability that isn’t bad—seeing the physical world of objects—it just does not replace these important mindsight skills of life. We learn these skills through relational interactions, and these will not develop if everyone is on their isolating devices! Just knowing that fact can help us see how we can find and nurture those important moments of real connection with our kids.

3. What is attachment science and why is it so important?

Attachment theory and research is a branch of science that explores human development through the lens of how our relationships with our caregivers early in life shape the ways we develop in lasting patterns that emerge from how our parents communicated with us. The reason this area of science is so important is that it shows that across development and across cultures, there are fundamental experiences children need to thrive.

Another powerful insight from attachment research that is empowering for parents is this: It is NOT what happened to you in your childhood that matters most, it IS the way you come to make sense of those early childhood experiences and how they’ve impacted your development that is the key factor determining how your children will become attached to you. And it is their attachment that will shape how they develop and thrive well, or in an array of compromised ways that limit their lives in the future. Did you feel safe with your parents? Did you feel seen? Did you have the experience of being soothed? And if these three S’s didn’t occur, were efforts made to reconnect made by your parent? We learn to become resilient by the repairing reconnections that can happen. Some of us have had those reconnecting experience, some have not. But it is never too late for you to develop your own way of making sense of your life and showing up for your kids and yourself. This is how we learn—or earn—security in our lives even if we haven’t had it in our childhood!

4. Parenting these days is harder than ever before with the advent of technology, cyberbullying, gun danger, etc. How do we address these issues with our kids without scaring them?

The first step in addressing these important issues of our current culture, including the unfortunate emergence of increasing relational violence and our climate crisis, is to begin with your own emotional response to these issues. One of the major biological imperatives of being a parent is to protect our children. But as our children move out of our homes and into the world, and as we learn about the global challenges to our well-being that create climate catastrophes we either experience directly or read about in the news, that parenting drive for certainty and safety is challenged. Just as the airlines suggest putting on our oxygen mask first in the case of an emergency, we, too, need to check our own emotional pulse and find some clarity and calm before we begin to communicate with our children about these issues.

We have a network in our brains from early in development that enables us to “sponge up” the emotions we perceive in others—even if these feelings are unspoken. For this reason, knowing your own emotional landscape, the feelings associated with the meaning of these cultural challenges is the first stage. Speak with other parents who you find are able to engage in helpful conversations about these issues. Develop the parenting approach in which you have “reflective dialogues” with at first your friends, and then your children, conversations that discuss the inner aspect of experience, not just the external events that occur. As you help your children develop these mindsight skills of seeing their own inner mental life, you can then address the emotional meaning of how the world is for them. Emotion and meaning go hand-in-hand in the brain, and so when you tap into emotions, be prepared for meaningful conversations in these reflective connections with your children.

Naming an emotion helps tame its sometimes overwhelming neural firing in the brain. As you help your kids name-it-to-tame-it, you’ll be building on these mindsight skills that help them construct what can simply be called an “internal compass” that will help guide them through the rough and uncertain waters of life ahead. Being able to say, “I am feeling scared” when fear is present is very helpful. It may sound simple, but studies reveal this capacity builds resilience. Being able to acknowledge that there is uncertainty in our world in terms of safety and climate stability is something you as a parent can teach your child how to do. These are challenging times, and learning the relational skills that help us build an internal compass and develop the emotional resilience to face uncertainty and fear, sadness and distress, is the key to the overall ways we can help our children develop well in these rapidly changing and ever-more challenging times.

The term, “VUCA,” is something parents may find helpful to know about, even if they don’t mention this acronym directly to their young children: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This term can help us remember, as journalists and those in the military who coined it have experienced, that this world is psychologically challenging. We parents can help our kids by coming to understand our own feelings first so we can be best prepared to help our kids develop the mindsight skills they’ll need to be as resilient as possible in the VUCA days, months, and years ahead.

5. In our current “influencer” culture, how can we teach our kids to speak up, have inner strength, and be their own person?

As we help our kids develop an internal compass and their mindsight skills, they’ll have the inner strength and the inner skills to detect the influences of others that are designed to persuade them to follow along instead of knowing and charting their own path. The tension, for not only children but adolescents and adults as well, is to balance our need to belong with the ever-present pressure to conform to the expectations and pressures, the morals and values, of others. Why would we give up morality go gain membership? Belonging for the mind is as basic for well-being as breathing is for the body. Especially during the adolescent period, vulnerability to peer pressure is a common challenge to our development.

Identity—being “your own person”—develops within our relationships with others. At first, this is within our families, shaped by our connections with parents and siblings. Then as we grow, we become influenced by our teachers and peers in school, later being shaped by friends and colleagues. If we find a life partner, that connection will take a primary role in how we not only experience our “sense of self” but how we then shape our children’s emerging identities.

The following may sound simple, but it has a deep backing from the science of development. When parents show up for their kids, when they reliably but not perfectly receive the four S’s of being safe, seen, soothed, and then secure, studies reveal that children will have the fortitude and self-composure to speak up for ourselves as they mature, to learn they can expect mutually rewarding relationships, know their own inner feelings and share these with others, and be able to bounce back from adversity to be resilient.

The bottom-line: Learning to show up for our kids, and ourselves, is the gift that keeps on giving. And this is the time, this new year, this new decade, to see clearly how we can harness the power of love and connection to offer the safe haven and secure launching pad that our kids deserve now and to prepare them for their lives in the future!

To pre-order “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired,” which comes out January 7, click here.

SUSAN PASCAL

Susan Pascal is editor of The Sunday Paper. She lives in Los Angeles with her two kids.