Last night’s all too brief webinar with Dan Siegel was a really excellent cliff’s note version of the book, The Power of Showing Up. Seriously, if you don’t have time to read it, but want to know more, his rapid-fire talk was like a TL;DR version of the book. Here’s a link to the recording. This is not one I recommend listening to on 2.5x the speed…he is a fast talker!
There are two main things I want to draw on for this article, though…the first is that he emphasized, again and again, that the 4 S’s (actually, there’s a bonus 5th S that he threw into the talk!) are the key to giving your child the best chance at developing resiliency in life, especially during the pandemic and the physical distancing we are all experiencing now. (And he really emphasized that we need to focus on physical distancing, not social distancing. I thought that was pretty interesting as that was the focus of the last thing I wrote about: that in this time where we can’t be together in-person as much as we are used to, it is vital to be sure to keep up social connections for mental health.)
You remember the 4 S’s, right? The ones I doled out sssslowly over the past several weeks? No worries, here’s a brief catch-up. The heart of Siegel’s research is on relationships and a big part of it focuses on how the parent-child relationship profoundly shapes the child’s attachment, which in turn, impacts their entire lives…of how they relate to themselves and to the world at large. Let me say that again, for their entire lives.
Before I write another word, I want to say that yes, these first few years are critical to children’s lifelong experiences…but by no means does that mean it is possible to get through those first couple of years (or life!) without some missteps. We’re talking about humans and relationships, and those get messy. Siegel flat out says there’s no such thing as Parental Perfection. It just doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean you don’t aim for it, but you don’t beat yourself up for not getting there. As I’ve said before, the repair is more important than the rupture: being able to steer the relationship back into alignment is more important than never making a misstep.
Instead of perfection, shoot for presence. It’s the presence, or lack thereof, that forms a child’s attachment. He reminds us that presence (being aware of our own state of mind, and being open and loving toward your child) allows for attunement (awareness of the child’s state of mind, not just their behavior) and resonance (the ability to take your child’s state of mind in and reflect it back to them, empathy), which build the trust necessary for attachment. This is a lifelong practice…we all need to do our PART in order to maintain healthy relationships (sorry…that’s his pun, I’m just passing it along).
So, how do you effectively do your PART? With those
four 5 S’s:
You keep your child feeling safe… physically and emotionally, making absolutely sure that we are not a cause of their terror (and if we do slip up, here and there, make repairs!). As parents or caregivers, we are the seat of a child’s certainty and security…it’s you they cry for (or hold in their tears for) when they are hurt or afraid. It’s you they look to in strange situations. It’s you they cling to when afraid.
You go beyond safety, and let your child feel seen. Let them know their internal world is visible to you: it’s that connection and compassion that lets your child ‘feel felt.’ This is the place where you look beyond the behavior for the why…understanding that ‘why’ is what makes a child feel understood and is the core of secure attachment.
You seek to soothe your child, which means showing up for your child in such a way that shows them that their distress doesn’t overwhelm or freak you out. This is harder to do these days with the extreme state of the world today, the anxiety of the pandemic, racial inequity and injustice so visible, political unrest, the fires and smoke, the uncertainty of everything…which is why it is so important to make sure you are taking care of your own mental health. You have to feel okay in order to be a container for your children’s feelings.
And that’s where that 5th S sneaks in…sense-making. It’s important to be able to make sense of the chaos and uncertainty of this world for yourself, so you can respond to your child in a stable way. Instead of being either rigid or chaotic, the more you are able to make sense of things for yourself, the more you are able to respond to your child in a flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable way.
And that leads me to the last part of the book that I’ve been holding back, and the second piece from the webinar that I wanted to emphasize. You see, attachment plays a vital role in our lives, and our own attachment sets us up to offer that to our children…the way you interact with your children is guided by your attachment style. But wait: only about 66% of adults have secure attachment. What if you realize that you did not grow up with a parent who was able to give you a secure attachment? I have really excellent news: you can still offer a secure attachment to your child. You can break the cycle.
The key is in being able to make sense of your own early childhood experiences and how they impacted you. “When we make sense of our experiences and work to comprehend our parents’ own woundedness, we can break the cycle and avoid passing down the inheritance of insecure attachment” (p. 72). It kind of goes along with the whole ‘name it to tame it’ idea…being able to have a coherent narrative about your childhood experience, even if it was negative, gives you some cognitive control and influences the attachment you have with your child. This is why I resonate so much with Dan Siegel (and Tina Payne Bryson)’s work: the Educaring® Approach constantly asks us to slow down, to respond instead of react. To think about why you feel what you feel. As Magda says, it goes through grey matter.
The 2nd chapter of this book is a meaty, but very readable, breakdown of attachment science. It beautifully outlines each of the different attachment styles and what they look like in adults, so that you can really not only understand attachment, but recognize yourself, your partner and parents, too. It helps you really start to understand the way you operate and respond to the world, and perhaps gives you a glimpse into your partner’s and parents’ motives, too. Here’s a very short synopsis:
Then, at the end of each chapter on the 4 S’s, there is a special section with questions for you to reflect on. They work you through recollections about your own childhood first, then slowly get you to reflect on your relationship to your child and what they may be experiencing from you. I’m going to include a sample of the questions below (there are about 8 per chapter), but if you find that they resonate for you, if you are someone who had a troubled childhood or even if you just seek to understand your own roots more fully, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of this book. They might be a good set of questions to work through with your partner, too, to get you on the same page.
- In what ways did your parents or other caregivers help you feel safe? In what ways did you not feel safe? Think about your physical, emotional, and relational experiences.
- Did you feel protected by your parents? In what ways did they do a good job of protecting you? In what ways did they fail?
- Did you ever feel terrified of your parents? Were your parents ever the source of your fear?
- How do you think your child would want you to respond when he or she comes to you feeling upset after a difficult interaction with you? What could you change?
- How did repair happen in your family after a subtle or severe rupture when you were growing up? How do you initiate repair now as a parent?
- To what degree did you feel truly seen by your parents?
- Do you currently have relationships in which you have more meaningful conversations, where you discuss matters having to do with your memories, fears, desires, and other facets of your inner life?
- How often do your children feel truly seen by you? Do they feel like you embrace them for who they truly are, even if it’s different from you or your desires for them?
- When you experienced distress as a child, who was there for you? What specific memories do you have of a parent or caregiver showing up and providing you with presence, engagement, affection, calming, and/or empathy?
- If you did receive this type of attunement as a child, what aspects of it would you want to give to your own kids? If not, how did you learn to cope with that absence? Did you most simply remain upset until you cried it out? Did you learn to deny your feelings and ignore their importance?
- How do you handle your own difficult moments now, as an adult?
- How secure did you feel as a child?
- Which one of the first three S’s s did your parents do best at providing for you? Where could they have done better?
- What could you do at this stage in your life to do a better job of showing up for yourself? How could you provide yourself with more security by showering yourself with the 4 S’s?
Lastly, I’m attaching their “refrigerator sheet.” It’s a 2 page synopsis of the Four S’s…a brief summary of each of them and a couple of strategies for implementing them. And the thing that strikes me is that all of these strategies can be done starting at birth: keeping children safe, learning how to really see them, helping them feel soothed in times of stress and sadness, and being their secure base. It’s what we practice in RIE, is it not? You’re already on the right track.