The Power of Showing Up

Two years ago was a real turning point for me as a parent. As I have already shared, it is important for foster parents to deal with their baggage and figure out what makes them tick so they can be supportive and emotionally stable for their children. Two years ago was when I got serious about my self care plan, and it was when I started developing positive parenting tools that really work.

Two years ago was also when I started thinking in terms of being a Fully Present Parent. In fact, I have thought for some time now that, if I were to write a book for foster parents, it would be about being a Fully Present Parent. Being “fully present” to my kids has directed pretty much everything I’ve endeavored to do these past two years, because I realized that one of the things my kids need most is me—my attention, my compassion, my support, my example, and, well, my presence.

Well as it turns out, I probably will not be writing my book after all, because the Dynamic Duo of Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, have already written it (and it’s way better than anything I would have come up with). The book is called The Power of Showing Up, and it is now part of my (growing) list of Must-Reads.

According to Siegel and Bryson, “Showing up means bringing your whole being—your attention and awareness—when you’re with your child.” Phone down, computer closed, fully present. “When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child in that moment.” The authors describe what showing up looks like as helping kids feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure (they call these the Four S’s). When we accomplish these things for our kids consistently (if not perfectly), we help them develop “secure attachment,” which is the goal of parenting.

After a fantastic opening chapter, which serves as an introduction and will sound very familiar to fans of these authors’ existing body of work (including The Whole Brain Child), the remainder of the book explores in depth what each of the Four S’s look like and, perhaps more importantly, why some parents are less inclined to be fully present parents. The authors address the importance of understanding our own past and identifying how some might want/need to parent differently than how they were parented. “History is not destiny,” they write. “Our past can be understood so that it doesn’t dictate our present and our future.”

One of the things I found surprisingly helpful in this book was the series of drawings depicting interactions between parents and children. Like holding up a mirror to my own parenting style, I saw myself in those scenarios and recognized my own tendencies toward disconnection, judgment, and commanding/demanding postures when I’m frustrated with my kids. Just in the past week, I have reflected on several interactions with my children that I recognized in the pages of this book. It is with a heavy heart that I see how I missed opportunities to “show up” for my kids—to help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.

I can do better.

And with the help of this book, I think I will do better.

Another thing I really appreciate about this book’s approach is that the parents are still the parents. Whether one is a natural parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent, we must create and enforce rules. Showing up as a parent is not passive or permissive parenting. For example, “soothing” should never be confused with “coddling.” The authors reiterate that they “are big believers in setting clear, firm boundaries for children and even having high expectations for them, particularly when it comes to being respectful of themselves and others.”

Appealing to a growing body of scientific research in the area of child psychology and brain development, the authors make a strong case for the benefits of a secure attachment. These include higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, greater academic success, better coping skills in times of stress, better relationships, and other competencies. As I often say, when it comes to parenting, “More is caught than taught,” and that includes modeling respect, empathy, compassion, and what it looks like to be fully present. If we want our kids to exercise good screen habits, for example, we have to model good screen habits. If we want our kids to show kindness toward others, we have to show kindness to them. If we want our kids to have healthy emotional regulation, it starts with us modeling healthy emotional regulation.

This book belongs on the shelf (or bedside table) in every foster home. We often face the reality that we are caring for children who come with a complicated history. They usually lack secure attachment, and because of that, they struggle with self-esteem, emotional regulation, social interactions, and trust. Many times, we don’t know where to start. We see the challenges they face (and the challenging behaviors we face!) and feel at a loss for where to begin to address their issues.

What our kids need, we are assured by these authors, is not perfect parents who do everything right. Instead, what they need are caregivers who show up (and keep showing up). “To give your kids the best chance for healthy and optimal development, all you have to do is help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.” This takes time, of course, but if we stay the course and continue to show up for them, we will give our foster and adopted children the best possible chance at developing a secure attachment and enjoying the benefits thereof.

Image: Used by permission via Creative Commons Zero

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” [Disclaimer Credit: Michael Hyatt]

Undivided Attention

One of the things I’ve noticed since becoming the parent of more than one child is how I constantly feel like I’m letting someone down when it comes to giving them enough attention. As the old saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and I have found that to be very true as a foster parent. The one with the most issues gets the most attention—which means that kids who are doing well, who are not struggling, can begin to feel like they are being (inadvertently) ignored.

If one of my children requires more attention—say, therapist appointments, teacher meetings, general behavioral interventions—it means I’m not giving as much attention to another child (or my spouse). We have three children of our own, and we often provide foster care for one or two additional little ones, which means that my attention is always, always divided. But there’s hope!

When we first became foster parents, we received some professional parenting help, and the woman who coached me in those first few weeks and months gave me a lot of invaluable advice, including the following: never underestimate the power of one minute of undivided attention. When a child is acting out, pulling on my shirt, interrupting me, calling to me from the other room, or doing something else to express his or her need for attention, I try to follow my coach’s advice, and when I do, it almost always proves to be effective.

What she said was, kneel down to eye level with the child and look right into their eyes. Adopt a cheerful tone of voice and say, “OK, you have my full attention! What can I do for you?” Stay there for about one minute, then say something positive like, “That is so interesting! Thank you for sharing!” then go back to your tasks. More often than not, that is enough to fill the child’s emotional cup and buy you the time you need to finish cooking dinner/paying bills/doing homework with another child/whatever.

I have had times when one minute did not seem to cut it, so instead of moving on, I say something like this: “I want to give you all of my attention right now, but I need to finish cooking dinner/paying bills/helping brother with his homework. How about if you let me finish this, and when I’m done, I’ll sit down and play with you?” It is so empowering for a child when you give them the opportunity to be part of the decision, knowing that you will be coming back with your full attention soon. I have seen this work beautifully with my four-year-old, as well as with other foster children we have had in our home. (Of course, it only works if you follow through on your word and actually sit down and play with that child when you’re finished with your task!)

But one minute of full attention is not enough in the long run. Another key to this is devoting longer periods of time to each child, one-on-one. Don’t get me wrong: this can be challenging, especially when you have three, four, five or more kids in your home! But I have found that, if you get creative, you can find ways to make it happen—and still get your housework or email done! Some ways I’ve done it include:

  • taking all of the kids to the YMCA and putting all but one in the nursery or kids’ gym, then taking them to the pool one at a time for thirty minutes or so
  • having a sitter come and stay with most of the kids so I can take one out for ice cream or to a playground
  • taking an extra long time with each child at bedtime once a week, snuggling on the couch and reading extra books, extra chapters, or just talking about their day
  • taking one child grocery shopping with me and letting him or her help, according to their abilities
  • taking advantage of nap time to give the non-napping child my full attention (yes, it’s hard to do that when you have a long laundry list of things to do!)

And it’s not just the kids who need our undivided attention—parents need it too! That’s why it’s so important that parents carve out time to be alone together without distractions. My husband and I have found that taking walks, going out to dinner, or just going for a cup of coffee at our favorite coffee shop have been key to staying connected and healthy in our marriage, especially during stressful times of parenting!

These times of undivided attention—whether in one-minute increments, fifteen minutes at bedtime, or thirty minutes in the pool or kicking around a soccer ball—are a vital part of the bonding and attaching process that every child needs in order to feel safe, secure, and emotionally rooted. For a child who has had disrupted attachment or has experienced neglect, these intentional times of connecting are even more integral to your bonding process—and their long-term emotional health.

It might seem impossible to give each of your children some undivided attention—we often feel like there are already not enough hours in the week! But trust me, it’s possible—and it’s pretty life-changing when you take the time to make it happen.

How about you? Are you intentional about spending one-on-one time with each of your kids and your spouse? How do you do it? Have you found it to be effective in maintaining a healthy relationship with everyone?