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This Is the Single Most Important Thing Parents Can Do For Their Kids

Forget enrichment programs and accelerated pre-kindergarten. Here's what you really need to do.

What does it mean to be a good parent? Does it mean to give a kid every tool for success? Enroll them in enrichment programs? Challenge them with tutors, piano lessons, and elite soccer clubs? Does it mean to push them into the world or does it mean to hug them, hold them, and be their support system? These types of questions swirl around every parent’s head, because, well, they’re essential to ask. But, according to Tina Bryson, the most important thing a parent can do is to just be there. 

Bryson is a psychotherapist and founder and executive director of The Center for Connection and the Play Strong Institute in California. But she is best known for having co-authored The Whole Brain Child as well as The Yes Brain and No-Drama Discipline, the former of which was a New York Times best seller. Her new book, The Power of Showing Up, aims to radically alter the way parents view what it means to ‘parent’ well. In the book Bryson and and co-author Dr. Daniel Siegel suggest that kids really only need a few things to thrive in an ever-changing world: the sense of feeling safe, seen, and soothed, all of which helps them form secure attachment bonds with their parents and then, down the line, helps them build resiliency in the face of stress and create healthy relationships with others. 

Fatherly spoke with Bryson about her new book and what parents should understand about these essential truths. 

Your new book is called The Power of Showing Up. What, exactly, does it mean to “show up” for a kid?

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A parent being present is the opposite of being distracted or checked out. It’s definitely more than being physically present — we can be physically present but completely checked out. We are really tuning in to our child’s internal experience, or to their mind. 

An example of that would be one battle we would have when my son was young. He didn’t want to get out of the bathtub. When I’m showing up, and I’m really present at that moment, I basically tune in to what his internal experience is. I say, “You’re so mad that you have to get out of the bathtub. You’re really sad about bath time being over.” Now, that doesn’t mean I let them stay in the bathtub. This is not permissive parenting. But what’s happening is that his internal experience and my response are a match. 

When you accurately name an emotion, it actually calms the whole nervous system and the brain. When we really show up in the moment, and we really tune in to our child’s experience, they actually feel a lot safer in the world.

So “showing up” means being emotionally present with your kid.

The idea of showing up is a mammal need and a mammal instinct. If you’re a baby bear cub and you see a predator coming towards you, our biological instinct is to run towards an attachment figure, a parent or another adult who will help you survive. The best measure for how a kid will turn out is whether or not they’ve had secure attachment with at least one person. So when we talk about showing up, this is the way we provide secure attachment.

Can you tell me about the Four “S’s” you say in the book that are the only thing that kids need?

When a child is in distress, and someone gives them the four S’s — someone provides for them the experience of feeling safe, seen, and soothed, in that moment then that’s what leads to the fourth S, secure. That’s that secure attachment. 

It’s not about the kid feeling secure, like the way I feel secure about myself, but rather secure attachment. The child’s brain is wired based on repeated and predictable, but not perfect, experiences where they have a need and the parent has seen the need and helps them feel safe, seen and soothed. Eventually, the child starts expecting that from other relationships.

They expect their friends and romantic partners down the road to help them feel safe, seen and soothed. Eventually, they can do that for themselves. They can help themselves feel safe and understand themselves. The circuitry in the brain has been wired for how to do that. 

That makes sense. It’s a secure model of what healthy relationships become: home bases, where people can venture out on their own but always have their person. 

The brain is like a sponge for our children. If we give attention to their experiences, and their internal world, especially that “Seen” one where we can say, “I see you feel frustrated. What was that about for you?” When we do that, their brain gets practice learning circuitry to understand their, and other people’s, minds better. So, it builds insight and empathy. 

What does it mean to make a kid feel safe and soothed?

Safe is really about helping your child feel protected, but also not being the source of fear for your child. One of the best ways we can help our kids feel safe is by regulating our own emotions, and not overreacting or reacting in unpredictable ways.

The other thing that helps our kids feel safe is by having the adults not be the scary people. When we have boundaries that we’ve clearly communicated to kids, and we’re consistent with them, that can help feelings of safety as well. 

Soothing a kid is the idea that whatever is happening in the moment with our kid, maybe it’s a full blown tantrum and they’re out of control emotionally, you get down close and make sure you’re calm and say, “You’re safe. I’m with you. We’ll figure this out together.” When they have big emotions and they’re having a hard time, we show up at that moment and we help them calm down and we say, “I’m going to help you.”

That doesn’t mean doing everything for our children where they never struggle. It’s really about walking with our children through it. 

It sounds like it’s about building emotional resiliency.

In that moment where I pull my son out of the bathtub and he’s screaming, because he doesn’t want to get out, I’m saying, “I know you’re so mad about getting out, and I’m right here with you.” 

When we soothe our children and we help them calm down by comforting them, their brain gets practice going from a really chaotic upset state back into a calm, regulated state again. That’s called co-regulation. When we do that for our children, it doesn’t make them more fragile. We’re giving their brain an experience of practice going from an out of control state to a regulated state, so that their brain is getting that practice.

Right. And over time that helps them get the tools to start doing that themselves.

Absolutely. I tell parents, “If you want your kids to be resilient, and be able to handle adversity and their own big emotions, you better soothe them. You better show up and be emotionally present.” Some parents think of that as coddling or indulging, but the science is really clear about this: You cannot spoil a child by providing them with too much attention or too much emotional responsiveness. It actually gives them the skills and strategies to be really resilient, because you’re giving them enough support in the moment for them to understand that they can handle really hard stuff, and that people will show up and support them.

One of the least intuitive S’s, in my mind, is to be “seen.” I don’t really know what that means. What does it mean to “see” a kid?

This is the hardest one for this generation of parents. For all of us parents, who think we have to helicopter-parent or hyper-parent, and do everything for our children and be everything and provide everything for our children, that’s not what science says. The science says: “What your kids need most from you is you.” 

In terms of being ‘seen’, this is really tricky, especially in terms of what you want your child to be and accomplish. Sometimes we let our own desires and expectations get in the way of seeing who our kid really is.

But to say it simply, the idea of being ‘seen’ is the experience of feeling felt or seeing the mind behind the behavior. It’s where your child feels known and understood. So, like, as an example,  there are kids who chronically make faces when they are asked to smile in photographs. And for years and years the kid will always make a weird face. One of my family members was so frustrated because their kid will never smile. And I said, “I actually think he feels self conscious and embarrassed.” So that would be an example of [seeing the mind behind the behavior.]

If your child doesn’t want to put their toys away or get their shoes on, you can say, “Oh, it’s so frustrating to stop when you’re having such a good time.”

That’s the idea of being seen. You look past the behavior. Being seen is really having someone tune into your internal landscape or your internal experience, meeting you there and joining you there. Seeing who you are and how you’re feeling.

But we make missteps all the time. There might be times when we yell at our kids; there might be times where we miss what they’re thinking or feeling and we’re too distracted to see it. 

Right. Parents make mistakes.

But science is also really, really hopeful. We can make mistakes all the time as parents. We can have those ruptures; we can do all those things, and as long as we repair with our children and say, “Oh my gosh I wish I had handled that differently; I really got angry and my emotions got the best of me.” When we make those repairs, it’s actually really valuable for our kids because they feel safe, seen and soothed when we do that.

It also teaches them that we can have conflicts in relationships and work through it and it’s okay again. It widens their window of tolerance for dealing with conflict.

So how do I make sure a kid knows that I’m “seeing” them?

The main thing is to acknowledge the child’s feelings about what’s happening.

It is really the opposite of the ‘kids should be seen, not heard’ mantra.

Absolute opposite.

Like. On the contrary, kids really need to be heard in order to work through their feelings.

Yeah. When we say children need to be seen and heard, people then think that means that [we endorse] indulgent permissive parenting. [We don’t.] Is’ really about saying yes to their emotions, and their mind, while we say no to the behaviors. This is one of the best predictors of how well kids turn out — if they have a secure attachment to at least one parental figure.

But, the best predictor for how well we provide secure attachment to our kids is not whether or not we had it with our own parents. We might not have had parents who helped us feel safe, seen, soothed or secure. But that history is not destiny for us as parents.

What the research says is that if we make sense of the kinds of experiences we had as kids, and we reflect on them, we actually do something called earned secure attachment.

Our brains start to change right away, and as we do that, as we start changing, to help our kids begin to feel safer, more seen, and soothed more often from us, our children begin to change in positive ways immediately. So regardless of how you were parenting or how you’ve been parenting, it’s never too late to start providing more of those four S’s. 

What I love about this model is it’s essentially teaching kids resilience. It’s not taking kids feelings away; it’s telling kids they can deal with their discomfort on their own, but that we’ll be there to support them.

It’s also not being intrusive, taking over, and fixing everything. The way we become resilient is by practicing dealing with difficult things with enough support. That’s where the Four S’s come in. I’m going to keep you safe; but you’ve got this. I will step in if it gets to a certain point, but you got this. I’m right here with you.