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]

The Foster Parent’s Glossary: AMYGDALA

eqbrain_optical_stim_enI have never studied neuroscience. I was a music major, and later a communications major, so neither focus of my studies involved studying the brain (except for some cursory info on how music impacts the brain). But when I became a foster parent, I quickly realized that I needed to become a student of the brain.

One word that has come up often as I have studied how to parent children who have experienced trauma early in life (from the womb, in fact), is the word “amygdala.” Perhaps you are familiar with this, but in case you’re not, here’s a bit of info that will be very helpful in understanding some of things you might experience as you parent your foster children.

This post from the blog Neurons Firing gives a simple, brief explanation of what the amygdala is and how it functions. In brief, “The amygdala deals with our emotions, helps process our memories, and gets totally absorbed in managing our response to fear and stress.”

This Time magazine article explains how childhood trauma affects brain development and can have a lasting impact on behavior well into adulthood. The author writes, “Painful experiences early in life can alter the brain in lasting ways. A difficult reality for psychiatrists and counselors ofchild abuse is that young victims are at high risk of becoming offenders themselves one day, although it’s unclear why. But now a team of behavioral geneticists in Switzerland report a possible reason: early psychological trauma may actually cause lasting changes in the brain that promote aggressive behavior in adulthood.”

And lastly, this article from Empowered to Connect goes into more detail about the implications of the specific types of trauma (abuse and neglect) that many foster children experience. They offer this encouraging conclusion: “While it is true that many children who come from the hard places have the appearance of mental illness, we are confident from our decade of research based intervention development that many children have “crazy” behaviors which can be disarmed by disarming their belief that they are cornered in a hard place and by disarming the work of the amygdala and other primitive brain structures that keep the child in a chronic Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode. Data from our camp and from our intensive home program provide documentation that our children’s stress hormone, cortisol, can be cut in half in a period of days when they feel safe. In addition, data from our research document the fact that the excitatory neurotransmitters that drive mental illness can be cut in half when a child knows that they are safe.”

I cannot emphasize how helpful this information has been when it has come to parenting children in our home who have experienced early trauma. While we do use things like consequences and natural outcomes to teach our children, we have come to see that no amount of conversation or consequences will affect our kids’ behavior if they are operating from a place of panic (fight, flight, or freeze). They are incapable of being rational or even hearing us in those moments. As we have focused on helping them feel safe and connected, we have seen great progress.