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]

No, You’re Not a Demon Child

Back in November, I shared a post on Facebook about a phenomena known as “restraint collapse,” or “after-school restraint collapse.” This refers to the common experience many parents report of their children doing very well at school, but when they get home, the wheels come off. One reader’s comment summarized it well:

I did this my entire childhood. I remember my mom telling my pediatrician “she’s so good with anyone else but as soon as it’s just me and her she goes off”. Wish my mom was around for us to talk about this. It’s kinda comforting to know it’s a normal thing and I wasn’t just a demon child haha. 

Her comment broke my heart, not least of all because her mom is not around anymore to discuss things with, but also because she has likely spent years believing that she was uniquely “bad.” One of my motivating factors for writing this blog and the other resources I create is to educate and inform parents and foster parents/caregivers so we can support our kids and help them find emotional wholeness and vibrant mental health.

If you, too, experience after-school meltdowns, or if you get home from church and your children seem to have been possessed by demons somewhere between “Jesus Loves Me” and that week’s Memory Verse, you’re not alone.

And they’re not possessed.

It’s called “restraint collapse,” and it’s a very real thing. Pay attention. I thought of it as a behavior problem for too long, and my irritation and frustration only added fuel to the emotional fire. One of the big “A-ha!” moments for me was recognizing how much children thrive in structure, and how lack of structure can leave them feeling insecure and unsafe. Think about it: they are going from a (presumably) highly-structured environment to a non-structured environment, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Add a bit of mental exhaustion from trying to pay attention all day and meeting the expectations placed on them, and conditions are perfect for meltdowns.

Once I saw it for what it was, I was able to take some proactive steps to help my kids regulate their emotions through the transition back home. Here’s what we do:

1) After-school snack, pronto! Not cookies and milk, either (well, sometimes cookies and milk, if I’m honest, but not usually). Yogurt, cheese sticks, protein balls, pepperoni sticks, mixed nuts and crackers, fruit (apple slices, bananas, grapes are favorites). And water! If you have after-school activities, have snacks in the car on the way. The kids haven’t eaten in hours. Feed & hydrate them! And I find it helpful to have a snack ready as soon as we get home. Lately, a piece of cheddar cheese and apple slices is my go-to. Not enough to ruin their appetite for dinner, but something to satisfy for the meantime.

2) Debrief. Sit with them as they munch. Ask good questions (not yes or no questions). “What was one thing that made you happy today? One thing that made you sad? What was on the lunch menu? Who did you sit with at lunch? Was recess inside or outside? What did you do during recess?” I will share that my children are usually talking over one another at this point, competing for my attention and affection. This little scenario can get loud and heated very quickly, so I try to be intentional about directing my questions and making sure everyone feels heard. Sometimes I have to work hard to keep my demeanor positive (I don’t always succeed—nothing triggers me more than my kids fighting with each other—but when I’m mindful of it, it helps a lot.)

3) Get them moving. Some kids need “down time” after school. I don’t know what that’s like. My kids need to MOVE and SCREAM. We often stay on the school playground or head to another playground after school. Alternately, we come home and, after snack, I tell the kids they have fifteen minutes to play outside before it’s time to start homework (or, for the little ones, twenty minutes of looking at books.) I use my timer and, again, stick to a structure.

4) Find a way for each child to feel seen and heard. When I pick my younger kids up from school, there are four children in my van, and they are all talking at the same time! When we get home, during snacks or after snacks, I give each child some individual attention. Hugs and eye-contact are key. It’s not as hard as it sounds! 🤪 But it does take planning.

5) Meal plan and fix make-ahead meals so you’re not trying to make dinner while the kids are losing their minds. You know the drill. #witchinghour

6) When all else fails, let them watch a show. Honestly, I almost never do this after school, because it’s too hard to pull my children away from the TV once they’re locked and loaded. If homework needs to happen, it must happen before screens. But that said, PBS Kids has some great options that are around 22 minutes each. Sometimes kids just need to chill out after working so hard at school. Let them!

Let me be clear: what I am suggesting here is not coddling our kids and never letting them exercise their own emotional self-control. I am not painting a picture of bringing children home from school and then coddling them in order to avoid them having to manage themselves. What I am getting at here is that we need to recognize what’s happening and set our kids up for success. Younger children don’t always know what they need. With a bit of effort, we can help. Sometimes I don’t do all of the above, but when I do, things go much more smoothly after school.

Hope you find this helpful!!!

Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

The Power of “Special Time” With Your Kids

My kids and I are in Virginia with my parents right now. 

Every summer, we come for out about four weeks. It started a few summers ago, when my husband was doing some major renovations on our house. We needed to be out of the house for many weeks, so we came to Virginia. My husband joined us for part of the time, but mostly the kids and I enjoyed summer at my parents’ house and came home to a beautifully renovated home!

One of the best things about spending this chunk of time with my parents is that, with their help, I am able to devote more one-on-one time with each of my kids. Whereas back in Seattle, I have to arrange for short shots of attention for each of my kids, here I can take them one at a time for longer stretches.

Today, I took my four-year-old out for lunch. We parked at a shopping center and I let him pick the place. We got our food and I let him pick our seats. He chose to sit outside at a little cafe table.

After only a few minutes of sitting there with our food, my son noticed a stink bug on the ground under our table. I would have totally missed it, but he spotted it and pointed it out. For the next forty-five minutes or so, we followed that stink bug as it crawled around on the ground and then, eventually, up the window of the restaurant. He and I would return to the table to take a bite of food and then head right back to “his” stink bug. We studied it up close, talking about it’s amazing little legs, and how fast it was moving and how cool it was that it could walk right up a glass window. We also talked about how cool it would be if we could climb up walls like a stink bug, or like Gecko (from PJ Masks). We laughed together and allowed our imaginations to go wild together. 

It was so much fun.

My four-year-old is the youngest of our four children. He has watched many children come and go from our home, and he has handled it incredibly well. But he has to share my divided attention most of the time, so these one-on-one times, which we call “Special Time,” are precious to us both.

I wanted to share this today to encourage you to do what you can to give your children small chunks (15 minutes or so) of your undivided attention every day, and to make arrangements for longer chunks (going out for lunch, to a movie, out for ice cream, or—one of our favorites—to a thrift store’s toy section) on weekly or bi-weekly basis.

When you do, keep these things in mind to make the most of your Special Time:

  • Look for ways to empower them (they get to choose the game, restaurant, seats, movie, etc.) 
  • Put your phone away and out of sight so you can practice “fully present parenting” (except maybe to take a photo of “his” stink bug!) 
  • Engage them in conversation at their level. Click here for some Preschooler Conversation Starters. Click here for some older child conversation starters.
  • Treat them to a small gift. Perhaps a toy from the thrift store or a coin for a candy machine. I routinely say “no” to those coin-operated M&M machines, so when I hand him a quarter and point to the M&M machine, you’d think he just won the lottery!

All children need attention, opportunities to be empowered and deep connections with their caregivers. But children in foster care need this even more. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how far this practice goes with kids who have experienced trauma and neglect! If you practice “Special Time” with your kids, I’d love to know what that looks like for you! Please share below!