The Power of Showing Up

How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired

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Parenting isn’t easy. Showing up is. Your greatest impact begins right where you are. Now the bestselling authors of The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline explain what this means over the course of childhood.

“There is parenting magic in this book.”—Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of the New York Times bestselling classic Raising Cain

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. In an age of scheduling demands and digital distractions, showing up for your child might sound like a tall order. But as bestselling authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson reassuringly explain, it doesn’t take a lot of time, energy, or money. Instead, showing up means offering a quality of presence. And it’s simple to provide once you understand the four building blocks of a child’s healthy development. Every child needs to feel what Siegel and Bryson call the Four S’s:

Safe: We can’t always insulate a child from injury or avoid doing something that leads to hurt feelings. But when we give a child a sense of safe harbor, she will be able to take the needed risks for growth and change.
Seen: Truly seeing a child means we pay attention to his emotions—both positive and negative—and strive to attune to what’s happening in his mind beneath his behavior.
Soothed: Soothing isn’t about providing a life of ease; it’s about teaching your child how to cope when life gets hard, and showing him that you’ll be there with him along the way. A soothed child knows that he’ll never have to suffer alone.
Secure: When a child knows she can count on you, time and again, to show up—when you reliably provide safety, focus on seeing her, and soothe her in times of need, she will trust in a feeling of secure attachment. And thrive!

Based on the latest brain and attachment research, The Power of Showing Up shares stories, scripts, simple strategies, illustrations, and tips for honoring the Four S’s effectively in all kinds of situations—when our kids are struggling or when they are enjoying success; when we are consoling, disciplining, or arguing with them; and even when we are apologizing for the times we don’t show up for them. Demonstrating that mistakes and missteps are repairable and that it’s never too late to mend broken trust, this book is a powerful guide to cultivating your child’s healthy emotional landscape.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Power of Showing Up

Chapter 1

What It Means to Show Up

One message we deliver over and over whenever we write about parenting is that you don’t have to be perfect. Nobody is. There’s no such thing as flawless child-rearing. (We’ll pause while you let out a deep, relieved breath.) So raise a warm, left-in-the-minivan juice box to all of us imperfect parents out there.

At some level we all know this, but many of us—especially committed, thoughtful, intentional parents—consistently fall prey to feelings of anxiety or inadequacy. We worry about our children and their safety, of course, but we also worry that we’re not being “good enough” in the way we’re raising them. We worry that our kids won’t grow up to be responsible or resilient or relational or . . . ​(fill in the blank). We worry about the times we let them down, or hurt them. We worry that we’re not giving them enough attention, or that we’re giving them too much attention. We even worry that we worry too much!

We’ve written this book for all the imperfect parents who care deeply about their kids (as well as for imperfect grandparents and teachers and professionals and anyone else who cares for a child). We have one central message full of comfort and hope: When you’re not sure how to respond in a given situation with your child, don’t worry. There’s one thing you can always do, and it’s the best thing of all. Instead of worrying, or trying to attain some standard of perfection that simply doesn’t exist, just show up.

Showing up means what it sounds like. It means being there for your kids. It means being physically present, as well as providing a quality of presence. Provide it when you’re meeting their needs; when you’re expressing your love to them; when you’re disciplining them; when you’re laughing together; even when you’re arguing with them. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to read all the parenting bestsellers, or sign your kids up for all the right enrichment activities. You don’t have to have a committed co-parent. You don’t even have to know exactly what you’re doing. Just show up.

Showing up means bringing your whole being—your attention and awareness—when you’re with your child. When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child in that moment. In many ways, there is no other time but now—this present moment of time—and you are in charge of learning how to show up in ways that will both greatly empower you as a parent and promote resilience and strength in your child. It’s this power of presence that enables us to create an empowered mind for our children—even if we mess up on a regular basis.

Depending on your background and what kind of parents you had as a child, showing up for your own kids might come naturally. Or, you might find it difficult. You might even recognize at this moment that you’re not showing up for your kids in a consistent way, either physically or emotionally. In the coming pages we’ll discuss how, regardless of your own childhood experiences, you can be—and continue to become—the kind of parent you want to be.

Of course we all make better and worse decisions as parents, and there are all kinds of skills we can attain to help our children develop in optimal ways. But when you get right down to it, parenting is about simply being present for our kids. As we’ll soon explain, the longitudinal research on child development clearly demonstrates that one of the very best predictors for how any child turns out—in terms of happiness, social and emotional development, leadership skills, meaningful relationships, and even academic and career success—is whether they developed security from having at least one person who showed up for them. Across cultures around the globe, these studies reveal a universal finding about how we can parent well, if not flawlessly.

And the great news is that these empirical findings can be synthesized and then made accessible for all of us imperfect parents all over the world. That’s what this book is about.

What Showing Up Looks Like: The Four S’s

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. Predictable care that supports a healthy and empowering relationship embodies what we call the “Four S’s”—helping kids feel (1) safe—they feel protected and sheltered from harm; (2) seen—they know you care about them and pay attention to them; (3) soothed—they know you’ll be there for them when they’re hurting; and (4) secure—based on the other S’s, they trust you to predictably help them feel “at home” in the world, then learn to help themselves feel safe, seen, and soothed.

When we can offer kids the Four S’s, making repairs whenever the inevitable ruptures in these connections with our children may occur, we help create what’s called “secure attachment,” and it’s absolutely key to optimal healthy development.

As in our other books, everything we present here is backed by science and research. And as we’ll soon explain, these ideas emerge from the field of attachment science, where for the last half-century researchers have been conducting careful studies. If you know our earlier work—from Dan’s title with Mary Hartzell called Parenting from the Inside Out and through our books The Whole-Brain Child, No-Drama Discipline, and The Yes Brain—then you’ll immediately see, as you read the coming pages, how this book expands on what we’ve written before by going deeper into concepts vital to understanding the science behind whole-brain parenting. We’ve even added a few new twists here and there, since our understanding of parenting and the brain, along with the field of attachment science in general, continues to grow and evolve. So readers who know our work well will both see something new and feel right at home, recognizing familiar concepts while also gaining a richer understanding of them. We’ve worked hard to make the scientific information as accessible as possible, so that even someone approaching these ideas for the first time can follow along and immediately apply them in their personal and parenting lives.

In addition to attachment science, the other primary scientific framework underpinning our work is interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), an approach in which we combine various fields of science into one perspective on what the mind and mental thriving are all about. 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 within our relationships with one another and the world around us each to shape who we are. The field of IPNB has dozens of professional textbooks (now over seventy) exploring the science of mental health and human development. Within those fields synthesized by IPNB is the study of attachment as well as scholarship on the brain, including a focus on how the brain changes in response to experience, called neuroplasticity.

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. Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new links in the brain. Where attention goes, neurons fire. And where neurons fire, they wire, or join together.

What does this have to do with showing up? Well, your reliable presence in the lives of your children can significantly impact the physical architecture and connectivity in their brains, creating mental models and expectations about the way the world works. A mental model is a summary the brain makes that creates a generalization of many repeated experiences. Such mental models are constructed from the past, filter our current experience, and shape how we anticipate and sometimes even sculpt our future interactions. The mental models are formed within the architecture of neural networks underlying attachment and memory.

No kidding—the experiences you provide in terms of your relationship with your child will literally mold the physical structure of her brain. Those connections in the brain in turn influence how her mind will work. In other words, when parents consistently show up, their children’s minds come to expect that the world is a place that can be understood and meaningfully interacted with—even in times of trouble and pain—because the experiences you provide shape the ways the brain processes information. The brain learns to anticipate certain realities, based on what has happened before. That means your children will predict what’s coming next based on previous experience. So when you are present for them, they come to expect positive interactions—from others, and from themselves. Kids learn who they are and who they can and should be, in both good times and bad, through their interactions with us, their parents. Showing up thus creates in our kids neural pathways that lead to selfhood, grit, strength, and resilience.

- About the author -

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Siegel is the author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers Brainstorm, Mind, and, with Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline. He is also the author of the bestsellers Mindsight and, with Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, with welcome visits from their adult son and daughter.

More from Daniel J. Siegel

Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is the co-author, with Daniel J. Siegel, of two New York Times bestsellers, The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline. She is the founder and executive director of the Center for Connection, an interdisciplinary clinical team in Pasadena, California. She is a licensed clinical social worker, providing pediatric and adolescent psychotherapy and parenting consultations. As well, she keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and clinicians all over the world. Dr. Bryson earned her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

More from Tina Payne Bryson

The Power of Showing Up

How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired

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The Power of Showing Up

— Published by Ballantine Books —