The Power of Showing Up - Critical summary review - Daniel J. Siegel

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The Power of Showing Up - critical summary review

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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wire

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1524797715

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Critical summary review

“Virtually all parenting questions and dilemmas come down to the idea of relationship” – write Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in the introduction to “The Power of Showing Up.” And that’s precisely what their fourth collaborative effort is all about: the why’s and how’s of healthy parent-child connections. 

So, get ready to discover why your child’s happiness later in life depends upon the quality of your presence in their infancy – and prepare to learn what you can do to stack the odds in their favor!

Basic attachment science

First formulated by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s, attachment theory proposes that “children who form strong bonds – secure attachments – with their parents at a very young age lead much happier and more fulfilling lives.” 

These attachment bonds, write Siegel and Bryson, are formed “when parents respond to the needs of their children and dependably provide comfort, as when they pick them up when they cry, or hold and reassure them when they are upset. When children experience this type of reliable behavior and connection, they are then freed to learn and develop without having to use attention or energy to survive, or to remain hypervigilant, watching for slight changes in their environment or in their caregivers.”

In the 1970s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth put Bowlby’s theory to the test. First, she and her colleagues made visits to several homes and carefully assessed mother-infant interactions during the first year of the infants’ lives. Then, at the end of the year, each mother-infant pair was brought into a room where the babies were subsequently separated from their mothers and put in “strange situations” for the next 20 minutes – either left alone or with a stranger. Different infants reacted differently to the situations. The biggest difference could be observed in the infants’ responses to the mother’s return. Some children freely explored the new environment and were happy upon their parent’s reappearance. Others explored a little and either didn’t respond to the mother coming back at all or responded with confusion and ambivalence.

The four attachment patterns

After repeating the experiment several times, Ainsworth discovered that there was a direct correlation between the assessments of the mother-infant interactions at home and the reactions of the infants in these strange situations. More precisely, she extracted four basic attachment patterns:

  1. Disorganized. The children from this group are confused and anxious during the experiment – both in the absence of their mothers and after their subsequent return. They neither interact with the strangers nor explore the new environment. As a result of their parents being “severely unattuned” to their signals and needs at home (unresolved attachment pattern), these children grow afraid of interacting with the world. Their wired assumptions: “I’m not safe, and there is no one to keep me safe.” “I don’t know what to do.” “I am helpless.” “People are scary and unreliable.” Disorganized children are at risk for a variety of developmental and behavioral problems.
  2. Ambivalent. Just like the disorganized children, ambivalent infants don’t explore the new environment too much on their own; unlike them, however, they feel immense separation anxiety. Even so, they aren’t too keen to embrace their mothers upon return. On the contrary, they feel resentment and anger for being abandoned. The result of a preoccupied attachment pattern on behalf of the mother, this insecure connection forms because some parents are sometimes overattuned to their children’s needs – and sometimes are completely unresponsive. The children’s wired assumptions mirror this behavior: “I never know how my parents will respond, so I have to stay constantly on edge.” “I can’t ever let my guard down.” “I can’t trust that people will predictably be there for me.”
  3. Avoidant. Avoidant children only do a little exploration, but they don’t show much emotion upon the departure of their mothers. More importantly, they don’t seem to show any preference for their mothers over the strangers in the unfamiliar room. This comes as the result of a dismissing parenting tendency – that is, lack of attunement (and even indifference) to the child’s signals and needs. “My parents may be around a lot,” this child feels, “but they don’t care about what I need or how I feel, so I’ll learn to ignore my own emotions and avoid communicating my needs.” 
  4. Secure. Securely-attached children freely explore the unfamiliar room in their mothers’ presence and are happy when their mothers return. Sometimes they are distressed when they leave, but once they come back, they hold their mothers tightly and are comforted by the embrace. Their wired assumptions can be crystallized thus: “My parent isn’t perfect, but I know I am safe. If I have a need, they will see it and respond quickly and sensitively. I can trust that other people will do that, too. My inner experience is real and worthy of being expressed and respected.”

The 4 S’s of showing up

Securely-attached children are raised by sensibly sensitive parents, attuned to their infants’ innate need for connection. Such parents are able to read their children’s cues and predictably meet them. They are not only sometimes around – but at all times. In simpler words, they “show up” for their children, providing them with a “secure base” from which to explore their world. 

But what does showing up mean? “Showing up means what it sounds like,” Siegel and Bryson write. “It means being there for your kids. It means being physically present, as well as providing a quality of presence. [It means] bringing your whole being – your attention and awareness – when you’re with your child.” It doesn’t mean being perfect or signing your children for all the right enrichment activities; it just means understanding and meeting their needs consistently and predictably.

Predictable care embodies what Siegel and Bryson call the four S’s because it strives to help children feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Children can only feel safe when they are protected and sheltered from harm. But they also have to know that their parents see them and care about their needs. 

Moreover, children should be able to rely on them and be certain that their parents will be there for them when they are hurting. Based on these three S’s, they should be able to build a secure base around their parents’ presence and use it to feel “at home” in the world as well, “then learn to help themselves feel safe, seen, and soothed.”

Safe: beyond helmets and kneepads

Safety, defined in the plainest possible terms, is the opposite of threat. It’s also “the first step toward a strong attachment: a caregiver helps the child be safe and therefore feel safe.” When it comes to keeping their children safe, parents have two primary jobs: to protect them from harm and to avoid becoming a source of fear and threat. The following three strategies promote feelings of safety in children:

  1. First, do no harm. You should never become the source of fear in your home. So, don’t ever yell, threaten, or overreact. Manage your feelings and attend your emotions.
  2. Repair, repair, repair! Despite your best efforts, you might sometimes act in ways you don’t like. In such cases, try to reconnect with your child as soon as possible. Apologize, if necessary.
  3. Help your kids feel snug in a safe harbor. “Create within your home an overall environment of safety and well-being.” Allow your child to weather the storms of life through open conversations with you.

Seen: the value of being known

Truly seeing your children – according to Siegel and Bryson – consists of three actions: “(1) attuning to their internal mental state on a profound and meaningful level; (2) coming to understand their inner life; and (3) responding to what we see in a timely and effective manner.” This three-step process, they claim, helps children to “feel felt,” and can be triggered through the following two strategies:

  1. Let your curiosity lead you to take a deeper dive. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to preconceived ideas about your child’s behavior. Instead of assuming and judging – be curious and take the time to look and really understand what’s going on inside the mind of your child.
  2. Make space and time to look and learn. Intentionally observing your children is great, but sometimes you should try and go deeper with them. “Generate opportunities that allow your kids to show you who they are,” suggest Siegel and Bryson. “Create space for conversations that take you more fully into their world so you can learn more about them and see details you might otherwise miss.”

Soothed: being part of a calming whole

Being safe and seen can make a big difference in a child’s life; however, neither will help a child in distress establish a healthy connection to the world. In situations such as this, a parent must go beyond observing and demonstrate to the child that they are not alone in this world and that things will eventually turn out okay.

The best way for a parent to express this is by being present, by bearing witness to the child’s distress through their whole being. The child might still suffer even after the interaction, but at least they won’t be alone in their pain. Moreover, based on this “intersoothing,” the child should learn to provide “inner soothing” for themselves in the future. 

These two strategies should help your children develop the capacity to self-soothe:

  1. Build a calming internal toolkit. Teach your kid to be a problem solver and develop with them some simple strategies to help them calm when in distress. For example, come up with a list of energy-releasing movements or encourage them to listen to soothing music.
  2. Offer your P-E-A-C-E. When your kids are upset, offer them your P-E-A-C-E: your presence, engagement, affection, calm, and empathy.

Secure: putting it all together

“The fourth S results from the first three,” write Siegel and Bryson. “We give our kids a secure base when we show them that they are safe, that there’s someone who sees them and cares for them intimately, and that we will soothe them in distress. They then learn to keep themselves safe, to see themselves as worthy, to soothe themselves when things go wrong.” There are two basic strategies to promote a secure base for your child:

  1. Invest in a relational trust fund. The more you show up for your kids, the more understanding they will be when – for whatever reason – you sometimes don’t. Think of it like depositing into a bank account – a sort of trust fund.
  2. Teach mindsight skills. Mindsight is a kind of focused attention. It allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. Help your children learn mindsight by helping them realize what they are experiencing and by identifying their feelings with them.

Final Notes

Described as “the ultimate guide to family reconnection” by New York Times bestselling author Wendy Mogel, “The Power of Showing Up” should help parents not only understand their children better but also respond to them in ways that communicate “I hear you.”

To quote a Booklist review, “parents looking for solid research delivered in an accessible manner will find Siegel and Bryson getting the job done well yet again.” 

12min Tip

Be present with your children – physically and mentally. That’s what showing up means.

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Who wrote the book?

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., is an acclaimed author, award-winning educator, executive director of the Mindsight Institute, and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. Internationally renowned, he is the author of several highly praised bestselling books, such as “Mindsi... (Read more)

Tina Payne Bryson is an American psychotherapist. She is the founder and executive director of The Center for Connection, a multidisciplinary clinical practice in Southern California and of the Play Strong Institute. She is bes... (Read more)

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