Maintaining relationships can be difficult, especially in a world where everyone and everything is vying for our full attention. Because of these demands, we can often feel we are doing a half-hearted job in all areas of our life. For those of us who are parents, this busyness and stress trickles down into how we parent our children, making us lose sight of the big picture and presenting pressing questions such as: are we doing the right thing; are we too strict/too lenient; are we meeting our children’s needs; are we too protective; will they be relational, resilient and responsible? The questions go on and on. There is no simple, silver bullet answer to raising children. Parenting is complex and challenging, while simultaneously wonderful and rewarding.
Of all the parenting books I have read, both personally and professionally, Dr. Dan Siegel’s books are at the top of my list. I am a big fan of his research and practice! He, along with Tina Payne Bryson, authored The Power of Showing Up (published in January 2020) which discusses how the simple (but not necessarily easy) act of just showing up for our children is the best thing we can do. I will briefly highlight the science behind this framework, as well as introduce the Four S’s…his guidelines on how to show up for your children.
Showing up for our children means just that, “being physically present, as well as providing a quality of presence” (Siegel and Bryson, 2020). Showing up means we are emotionally and mentally present in that very moment with our children. This does not mean we have to be perfect parents. There is no such thing! When we are present in this way, we help cultivate in our children empowered minds, even when we frequently mess up and make mistakes. We have all been influenced by our own parents and caregivers, so parenting can seem like an overwhelming task or it might come naturally. We are not defined by our upbringing, but we are affected, both positively and negatively, by how we were raised.
I advocate that parents use guidance supported by clear evidence backed by longitudinal research. The information in all of Dan Siegel’s books (including this one co-authored by Tina Payne Bryson) is supported by science and research (50 years’ worth of studies) in the fields of attachment science and interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB). Siegel and Bryson state, “IPNB looks at how our mind —including our feelings and thoughts, our attention and awareness—and our brain and the whole body are deeply interwoven with our relationships with one another and the world around us to shape who we are.” Included in this field of study is neuroplasticity…how the brain changes in response to experience. Siegel and Bryson state, “Neuroplasticity explains how the actual physical architecture of the brain adapts to new experiences and information, reorganizing itself and creating new neural pathways based on what a person sees, hears, touches, thinks about, practices, and so on.” You may have heard the saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So how are neuroplasticity and showing up for your children related? As Siegel and Bryson clearly state, “The experiences you provide in terms of your relationship with your child will literally mold the physical structure of your child’s brain. Those connections in the brain in turn influence how your child’s mind will work.”
Siegel and Bryson do an incredible job explaining this scientific information in their book. Those approaching this framework for the first time will be able to follow along, understand, and apply the information immediately in their lives..
The Four S’s
Siegel and Bryson state, “When a caregiver predictably (not perfectly) cares for a child, that child will enjoy the very best outcomes, even in the face of significant adversity.” This predictable care embodies the “Four S’s,” which help kids feel Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure.
Safe—Children feel safe when they feel protected physically, emotionally, and relationally. They need to know and feel that they are safe. This does not mean parents/caregivers can’t ever make mistakes or do/say something that leads to hurt feelings; that is unrealistic. All parents/caregivers make mistakes; the important piece is to take ownership of one’s part and repair the damage as soon as possible. It is through these interactions the child learns that even when mistakes occur and harsh words are spoken, the love between child and parent is always present, along with the desire to make things right again. Through the receiving of this consistent message, children feel safe.
Seen—Children feel seen when parents/caregivers are attuned to what’s going on inside them, their inner feelings, thoughts, and memories; whatever is happening in the child’s mind beneath the behavior. Again, no parent/caregiver can pay attention to their child’s emotions (positive and negative) every second of every day. But on a consistent basis, parents/caregivers celebrate their child’s joys and hurt with them when they experience the hardships of life. Parents/caregivers are tuned in to their child’s internal landscape—seeing and accepting their child for who they are and who they want to be.
Soothed—Children need to know they can go to their parent/caregiver when experiencing internal distress to share their burdens, knowing they will be comforted by someone who cares and who is aware of their needs. The child’s pain/struggle might still exist, but the child knows they are not alone in their pain. The parent/caregiver’s soothing presence helps the child cope with their distress. Siegel and Bryson state, “Based on this parent-directed “inter-soothing” the child will learn to provide “inner soothing” for themselves.”
Secure—Children feel secure when they feel safe, seen, and soothed. Children receive a secure foundation when their parent/caregiver shows them that they are safe, that there is someone who sees them and intimately cares for them, and that their parents/caregivers will help soothe them in distress. As a result, children then learn to keep themselves safe, to see themselves as worthy, and to soothe themselves when things go wrong.
The Four S’s will often overlap and dovetail at times. When children feel safe, seen, and soothed, they will develop a secure attachment to their parent/caregiver. This secure attachment allows the child to interact with others as an authentic individual, and approach the world from what Siegel and Bryson have called a “Yes Brain.” The “Yes Brain” is described as, “Interacting with new opportunities and challenges from a position of openness, curiosity, and receptiveness, rather than rigidity, fear and reactivity.” The child’s whole brain is more integrated, as Siegel and Bryson so beautifully describe, “The child can employ the more sophisticated functions of their brain even when confronted by difficult situations, and respond to the whole from a position of security, demonstrating more emotional balance, more resilience, more in-sight, and more empathy.”
If you are looking for more information, I encourage you to read The Power of Showing Up by Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel. For further understanding on how a child’s brain is wired and how it matures, as well as strategies for parents/caregivers, be sure to check out these other books by Siegel and Bryson–The Whole-Brain Child, No-Drama Discipline, and The Yes Brain.
Parenting can be very challenging and we all need support from time to time. If you are struggling with parenting, wrestling with your background, how you were raised, or in any other area, please feel free to reach out to me for a 15-minute complimentary phone consultation at (703) 951-6409.
Alison Curtis, MA, LPC provides family, couple, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in the State of Virginia. Call or email today to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Alison.