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This Doctor’s Orders Are to Show Up for Your Kids

Meet Dan Siegel, M.D.

Published on: December 18, 2019

doctor dan siegel

If you knew there was one thing you could consistently do as a parent that would dramatically improve your child’s ultimate chances of success and happiness in life, you’d do it, right?

In their latest book, coauthors Dan Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., make a compelling case for a deceptively simple-sounding but very powerful two-word imperative for raising confident, compassionate and connected kids: Show up! “The Power of Showing Up,” which follows their other landmark best-selling collaborations “The Yes Brain,” “The Whole-Brain Child” and “No-Drama Discipline,” assures us that positive outcomes for our children are possible when at least one adult in their life reliably “shows up” for them.

Backed by the latest research in brain and attachment science, the book is an inspiring and instructive guide to understanding what particular qualities of parental presence are fundamental to cultivating children’s resilience and healthy emotional prospects. These are the mnemonic “Four S’s”: helping kids feel Soothed, Seen, Safe and Secure.

At the heart of “The Power of Showing Up” is a hopeful message for those of us who experience anxiety or feelings of inadequacy in our parenting: Our history is not our destiny. While we may not have experienced secure parenting ourselves and while it is true that today’s digital distractions and existential concerns can compromise our ability to be present consistently in our relationships (uh, hey, you — nose up out of that smartphone, I’m talking to you), each one of us can be the parent that we want to be.

We caught up with Siegel to learn more about his latest book — written compassionately for all of us “imperfect parents who care deeply about [our] kids” — and get an introduction to how showing up with attention and awareness shapes who our kids become.

In the context of this new book, what does it mean to “show up”?

“Showing up” is a term that Tina Payne Bryson and I use to really describe what it means to be fully present — not just your body, but with your mind — and focus your attention on what’s going on in the moment. In this case, we’re talking about with your child. [It’s a process of opening] your awareness to things that are actually happening that may be beyond what you may have thought should be there or would be there; it’s a quality of being really open and receptive to things.

What are “The Four S’s”?

I’m trained as an attachment researcher, and in that research we carefully do empirical studies of how parents and children all around the world interact with each other and the ways a parent really shapes the development of a child’s mind and wires their brain.

So what the Four S’s do is help a parent basically summarize the essential part of what that research shows, which is, number one, when a child is distressed, a parent learns how to Soothe them. That means staying present and showing up for really uncomfortable feelings and being able to do something about them. The next S is Seeing. What we’re talking about here is that the inner mental life of the child is a priority and tuned into by the parent. When you’re soothed and seen, you feel like you are part of a larger something than just your private self. The third S is Safe, and safe has two parts to it. One is that you are out of harm’s way, you’re protected from danger. The other is that you don’t have the prolonged or repeated or unrepaired experience of being terrified of your parents [in those cases] where your parents are actually the cause of your terror. That’s a biological paradox with no resolution [and] leads to what’s called disorganized attachment.

Each of these things contributes to the fourth S, being Secure, which is an internal scheme or mental model. It lets you feel like life, even when it’s difficult, can be manageable. Meaning, you can find your way out of distress towards clarity and calm.

Can you speak about the impacts on secure attachment posed by excessive screen time?

What we want to do is not condemn technology, because technology is really here to stay, but rather say, “Okay, how do we use technology in a way that’s going to actually increase how we connect with each other, how we see the mind.” What I call “mindsight.” These are reflective dialogues about subjective experience, which includes your emotions, your memories, the things that matter to you, the sense of purpose you have in life, where your hopes and dreams are. All that is stuff of the mind. And that’s one of the main problems with our digital distractions — we’re literally making ourselves have this incredibly short attention span, this very superficial view of what’s real and what matters. And because we’re born into a body, we’re also social creatures, so we naturally want to — not just want to, but we need to — have a sense of connection and belonging.

But that sense of connection and belonging is deeply threatened by all of the superficiality and lack of membership in community. You see this in so many ways. Modern life is built on a kind of solo self-view of what’s real and what matters. It’s a hard time to be a human being, I’ve got to say.

Have the foundational principles of whole-brain parenting emanating from the field of attachment science changed significantly since you wrote “The Whole-Brain Child”?

I’m at the very end of revising “The Developing Mind,” which is a textbook for graduate school students that I wrote in the ’90s; this is the third edition. I had 18 interns work with me on it, and my invitation to them was to try to prove that the second-edition principles that govern this thing called interpersonal neurobiology in fact are errors. After doing that with them for a year and then reviewing over 2,000 edits, what I can say is that the principles have upheld over the last 25 years. They’re built on this process of consilience, which means we try to find concurrence across many, many different fields, not just one. So, it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise they’ve upheld. Are they more challenging with digital distractions? Yes. With climate crisis? Yes. So, there are ways we need to apply these principles to what we do, but the principles are the same.

What are some of the best ways that parents can help their children learn to self-soothe?

When you teach your child to become aware of their feelings — and I’m here going to paraphrase Fred Rogers — when things are “mentionable,” which means when you can be aware of them and you can learn to put words to those feelings, that’s a really, really empowering process. The awareness part of it and the “languaging” of emotions.

The research out of our UCLA institute shows that when you can mention the emotions that are in the brain, they calm down from overactive, intense states, soothing you. It’s literally the process of soothing. So, that’s one thing you want to do: increase kids’ awareness of emotions. And then, basically, by showing up, what happens is you get your child to see that, if I’m feeling bad, I stay with my feelings, I can communicate my feelings, and then I can calm my feelings. These are the three C’s, I guess you could say: I’m Conscious of my feeling; I could Communicate it; and I could Calm it. And then you’re on the road to something called implicit memory — basically, teaching this skill that even when I’m distressed, I have a way to calm down.

Dr. Dan Siegel is back!

Join ParentMap on Jan. 14, 2020 for an exclusive night with best-selling author and speaker Dan Siegel, M.D. Learn the secrets of raising confident, compassionate and connected kids, featuring the latest research from his new book, "The Power of Showing Up." Get your tickets now

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