Worried about your children becoming stressed? Read this post to discover the most important thing you can do to help them.
You give your child a scooter for their birthday. And you make them wear elbow pads, wrist guards, knee pads and a helmet.
You do this knowing it won’t prevent them from getting into an accident. But it will drastically reduce the consequences if they do.
But what about helping your children cope with stress, anxiety and life’s disappointments? You can give them another kind of protective gear: protective emotional padding.
As Dr Dan Siegel (clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA) and Dr Tina Payne Bryson (pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist) write in their book, The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired, there’s something we can all do – parents, grandparents and carers – to equip our children to handle uncomfortable emotions, to help them succeed and feel at home in the world.
We can show up.
What does it mean to show up for your kids?
It’s about being present: both physically present and, crucially, giving your child a quality of presence.
And you do that by offering them what Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson call the “Four S’s”.
Children need to feel safe. That’s obvious, right?
But safety isn’t just about protecting your children from harm. As well as keeping them safe, it’s about helping them feel safe.
And it’s about making sure you don’t become a source of terror for them. Those moments when we become unpredictable, scary people. Screaming and yelling at a significant other or perhaps losing it with a customer services person on the phone.
This doesn’t mean you can never make a mistake or do something that hurts their feelings.
What it does mean, however, is that when you could have handled yourself better, you make a repair by apologising and taking responsibility. For example, “I’m sorry I shouted earlier. That must have been scary.”
And in these unsettled times, it’s about thinking about our messaging and how we discuss the pandemic.
For example, during periods of lockdown, instead of saying “you can’t go to school because it’s dangerous and people can get sick”, you might say “we’re taking a break from school because that keeps us safe”.
That way, your child gets the message that you keep them safe and when it’s time to return to school they know it must be OK.
When it comes to thinking about parenting, a lot of the time we can get caught up in focusing on our child’s behaviour. For example, if a child is not doing something they've been asked to do, we may label them as ‘naughty’ or ‘hyperactive’, when they’re perhaps worried about trying and failing. Or we’re so busy managing life around them that we’re not just being with them.
But if you’re going to show up for your child and be present, you need to ask yourself what’s going on in their mind. Focusing on their emotions, their thoughts and memories. Asking them questions like “How do you feel about that?” and “What was it like for you?”
Tune into your child by:
That might be helping to put those feelings into words – ‘name it to tame it’ as Dan Siegel says. For example, “it’s OK to be nervous.” Or it might be validating their feelings – “I know this is tough” – or offering comfort and guidance.
When you pay attention to your child in this way, you’re telling them they’re being seen, that they’re understood.
And research shows that when you come to see your child’s mind, your child will begin to see their own mind and they’ll learn to understand others too – which is the key to emotional and social intelligence.
You’ve taken your child to play with a friend but when it’s time to go home they ask if they can stay longer. You say no and your child starts causing a scene. What do you do?
You might get angry and tell them they should be more grateful: “a lot of children don’t get to play with their friends. If this is how you’re going to behave we won’t arrange this again.”
But if, instead, you stay calm yourself and show your child you recognise how disappointed they’re feeling, you can comfort them without giving in to what they want.
You’re soothing them in their distress while maintaining boundaries – providing a protective environment where they can learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions and learn they will pass, so whatever triggered them will no longer seem like such a big deal.
And you’re showing them you’ll be there for them when they’re hurting.
The fourth “S” is about providing predictable care, being consistent. Showing your children they can count on you to show up for them. Time after time.
And by doing so, you help your child create that all-important secure attachment – which, study after study has shown, gives children the best chance to thrive in life.
Being present for your children is not about being perfect – because there’s no such thing as perfect parenting.
It isn’t about preventing your child from experiencing setbacks and pain. It’s about providing them with the emotional strength and resources to ride out life’s choppy waters.
Giving them a secure base from which they can explore the world.
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