Show up to Grow Great Kids & Leave a Positive Family Legacy.
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
As a Family Therapist, Psychologist, Parent and Person, I know that relationships are amazing and fun, can improve health and wellbeing, and even extend your lifespan… and also relationships can be tricky, a source of stress, tension, and even distress.
Parenting has been described as the best and hardest job in the world, and the parenting relationship is one of the most important and complex relationships we will ever have, especially as parents’ brains and bodies talk to children’s brains and bodies, shaping their development. “Children’s brains thrive when interacting with adults who have the brain capacity to love them unconditionally, experience joy from being with them, pay close attention to them and understand them deeply” (Hughes and Baylin, 2012). This is just one of the many reasons parents are so important, and why it’s important for parents to look after themselves, practice self-care and have support.
As a Family Therapist I know that we learn about parenting, as with other aspects of life, from our first school of life and love…our Family of Origin. This means that parenting is influenced by past experiences, but it is also influenced by present state and circumstances, and future hopes. Parenting then goes on to have a profound influence on children. Parents influence children’s experiences, present state and hopes they have for themselves and their future. Most parents hope for their children to have an even better experience of life and more success than they have had. What hopes and dreams do you have for your children?
Parents are integral in children’s wellbeing. The research is clear, and repeatedly shows, that one of the single best predictors of how a child turns out is that there was at least one person in their life who was emotionally attuned to them (Seigel and Bryson, 2020). Experiences provided to children in relationships “literally mould the physical structure of the brain” (Seigel and Bryson, 2020). This is because at our core, human beings are profoundly social creatures, and this means that the relationship connections we have shape the way our neurons connect. These connections help our children know who they are, and what to expect from relationships and the world. Connected, attuned experiences give particularly helpful, positive messages to kids about themselves, relationships, and the world.
Shaping brains can feel like added parenting pressure but the good news is that you don’t have to be a perfect parent …. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect parent and perfection isn’t what kids need. Kids need parents who show up for them, connect with them, take a genuine interest in who they are, love them (even when they don’t love some behaviours), provide respectful limits with love and support, believe in them, provide safety, apologise when they get it wrong, and help them grow into the best version of themselves by being truly present and really seeing them for who they are.
Being truly present and providing parenting connection that is a positive relational experience is what Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson call “showing up” for kids in their latest book “The Power of Showing Up”. But what does “showing up” actually mean? What does it look like? Dan and Tina use the 4 S’s to help understand showing up – safety, seen, soothed, secure.
Safety, the opposite of threat, is important because brains develop best, are receptive, engaged for learning and open to discipline, when in a state of safety. But safety might involve more than you think. Feeling safe involves physical, emotional, and relational aspects. As safety develops resilience is enhanced. Providing safety does not mean children never face a challenge or get off the hook in terms of behaviour and expectations – it means this happens within a supportive relationship.
Safety also goes beyond the basics of food, shelter, experiencing no physical or verbal harm. It includes things like not being exposed to realities they are not developmentally ready for like inappropriate ideas and images on TV/internet/games on Playstation/X-box.
Helping your child feel seen is one of the best things you can do to give them a great start in life. The type of relationship built on a foundation of seeing your child for who they truly are is one with a sense of security. Security in the parent-child relationship is a great predictor of higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, increased coping capacity, more positive relationships with peers and family, improved social skills, greater sense of self-agency, more empathy and greater trust in life.
Parents help kids feel seen when they notice what is happening for the child (on the inside as well as the outside), make sense of this and then respond in attuned ways.
Soothing connections help children feel they are not alone and learn that their feelings are not scary and can be managed. The ability to self-regulate does not start with a self, it starts with a relationship. Connecting and soothing big emotions lays a foundation for encouraging cooperation and problem solving, instead of trying to control, manage, or get stuck in power battles. A connected, soothing approach to support positive behaviour in difficult situations will have a positive impact on a child’s brain and nervous system, emotions, behaviour, coping skills, social skills, and capacity for calm and regulation. Research shows that children who are soothed more in their early years have greater capacity for self-soothing in the later years.
“When kids feel safe, seen, and soothed, they come to feel secure as they become securely attached” (Seigel and Bryson, 2020). Developing security is a developmental progression, and as children experience safety, being seen, and being soothed, over time they will depend less on parents for security. They will begin to see themselves as having internal resources to feel safe and worthy and be able to soothe themselves.
Showing up for your kids is fantastic, and also, for some parents it will be harder to show up for their children. It’s important not to be hard on yourself if showing up in this way is difficult for you… in fact the research indicates that it will be more challenging for up to 40% of parents. This might be because of the effects of events in life that parents experience like loss or trauma, work pressures and stresses, parents having experiences of being parented that didn’t provide soothing and connection, or because their child has a temperament that is tricky or doesn’t fit easily into the family, or possibly because the child has inherited some vulnerabilities. It can also be because of experiences parents had when growing up of their parents not showing up for them, or experiences that weren’t positive, like shame-based discipline, witnessing domestic violence, experiencing neglect, or abuse.
The great news is that parents don’t have to let the past dictate the future. Past relationship experiences don’t have to dominate relationships and parenting. Making sense of the way we grew up and the experiences we had enables us to take stock and decide how we want to move forward with parenting and being present in the lives of our children.
When we make sense of our lives, this helps to reorganise the way our brains are wired so that our sense of reward, body regulation and insight are improved. This helps with staying present and connected instead of becoming triggered and defensive. If we don’t make sense of the past, then it’s more likely that a painful legacy could be passed down, usually unconsciously. But if we do make sense of our life, it is possible to break the cycle and pass down a positive family and relationship legacy improving our brain health as well as our children’s brain health.
Knowing about where we come from and making sense of our experiences gives us the power to make thoughtful, intentional choices from a position of feeling regulated, rather than moving through life reacting on autopilot. Have you taken time to consider your parenting values and where they came from? What difference could it make if you did?
Making sense of the past leads to what is called a ‘coherent narrative’ and this helps people become the person and parent they want to be, and to pass down connected relationship experiences that leave children feeling connected in strong and meaningful ways. It’s important to know that while the past can’t be changed, it can be put in its place so that’s its power is diminished, and it doesn’t rule the future.
Whatever your experiences of growing up and relationships, it is possible to be the loving, sensitive, connected parent that you would like to be, to parent in ways that are consistent with your hopes, intentions and values …to be a parent who shows up and raises children who are happy, successful, and fully their unique selves.
Some great resources to help show up for your kids, and yourself, include these books:
The Power of Showing Up by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel
And remember it can be helpful to have support on this journey – consider working with a Psychotherapist, Psychologist or other Allied Health Professional, Counsellor, Family Therapist or other helping professional.
Other great books to help grow great kids are:
How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving by Daniel Hughes and Jonathan Baylin
No Drama Discipline by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.