In this episode Dawn Williams speaks with Dr. Daniel Siegel, Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. Dan shares wisdom from his recent book, The Power of Showing Up, along with specific ways his research can support parents with the challenges they are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to his work at the Mindsight Institute, Dan is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and Founding Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. A beloved Blue School Advisory Board member and thought-partner, Dan has been a part of Blue School since its inception.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents, while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you are finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous, and compassionate. I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together we will find our way.
Today I have the great pleasure of speaking with Dr. Daniel Siegel. Dan is the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the Founding Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. He has published extensively for the professional audience as well as for parents and caregivers. He has authored and co-authored parenting books including: Parenting from the Inside Out, The Whole-Brain Child, Brainstorm: the Power of the Teenage Brain, and most recently, The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. Also, Dan is a beloved Blue School Advisory Board member and thought-partner.
DAWN WILLIAMS: So Dan, thank you so much for joining us today.
DAN: Dawn, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
DAWN: So you have been involved with Blue School pretty much since the beginning. I wonder if you could share how the connection started for you.
DAN: Well, you know, we had a wonderful dinner just getting to know each other, and as we did that we realized the founders, all six of them, and I had a lot in common. And we started just musing about how you could take the science I was working in, interpersonal neurobiology, and blend it with what the Blue School could be all about from the very beginning. And so that’s how it got started. It was supposed to be like a very brief meeting that went on for now over a decade, you know? And it’s a beautiful, beautiful set of relationships that we have.
DAWN: Well, I know we feel really lucky to have you around Blue School. Your sessions with our families are always such valuable gatherings. And we’re so looking forward to the Blue Note that you’ll be doing on July 9th, focused on your book The Power of Showing Up. And I was just looking through that book, and you start with such a powerful question, right? This question of the single most important thing we can do for our kids to help them succeed and feel at home in the world. Can you share a little bit about how you answer that essential question?
DAN: Yeah, you know, it’s so wild being a parent, isn’t it? It’s like the most —
DAWN: So wild.
DAN: — complicated and challenging role we can be in in life. And yet it’s one of the most rewarding and of course important roles. So as a scientist, I was really wanting to figure out how in the world to condense all the different approaches to researching this parent-child relationship into something that was easily remembered and very practical. And showing up was just the simplest notion. That if you looked at all the attachment research, it really boiled down to being present for your child. And there were certain steps you could teach people and teach yourself how to do in order to show up and provide this process called a secure attachment relationship. And so that’s where that came from, just trying to think, how can you condense all this science into one simple approach.
DAWN: Right, and I guess simple approach — it feels like showing up can be both simple, and I’m sure as a parent, I feel sometimes that it’s very complicated also. And you repeat through the book that we don’t have to be perfect.
DAWN: Do you find that parents — I don’t know, that we beat ourselves up? I feel like I’m always worrying that I’m not giving enough attention, or that I’m giving too much attention. How do you think about being enough as parents?
DAN: Yeah, well I think that’s the key issue, is that as a parent of course you want to have kind of a framework in mind, a notion of a direction. Yet we can take it to the extreme, where we think there’s something called perfection. But instead of perfection being the goal, think of just being present as really what we’re aiming for. So no one gets it right. Even if you study this stuff, or read all the books on it, or write books on it.
There’s always these bloopers that we make, small and sometimes big mistakes. And the mistake of a mistake is that you can take two, you know? You can do it again. And the research by Ed Tronick and other scientists shows that it’s actually these repairs of the ruptures, these moments of disconnection, you can intentionally create a reconnection that are really what teach our children, by being role models, that life isn’t about perfection, it’s about showing up and being present. So this is where you can learn to be kind to yourself, to be patient. But also to hold on to a notion of, there is a framework that science supports on what is the best gift you can give your child. So it’s kind of this balancing act between saying, I’m going to be kind and flexible with myself as a parent, and I’m going to give myself as a parent a direction on how to parent that’s based on science. So kindness, flexibility, clarity, all of that is in this notion of showing up.
DAWN: So during these COVID days, when I’m wondering what does presence mean, or how should we think about presence in this moment where so many of us are always with our children?
DAN: Yeah. Well let’s take a pause with that really profound and timely question and challenge for all of us as parents. You know, my kids now are young adults, 26 and 30. So Caroline and I have a different kind of experience parenting adult children. It has its own challenges in terms of keeping the channels of communication open and facing life and death issues of the pandemic that we can talk about in a moment. And having adolescents at home like you do. You know, that’s a whole different challenge because their drive is to seek connection with each other and now we’re separating them from each other for the most part.
And the drive is to explore and push against the boundaries that adults have created. That’s the natural way. And the pandemic has really put a huge necessary constraint on that. And then when we talk about younger kids, kids in the elementary school age years, or preschool and toddlers, and maybe infants are a little different. But for the social kids, to not be able to be with their friends, that’s huge. I mean, we’re a very social set of beings. Even we as adults of course need our social connection. So the first thing to say is that the COVID-19 illness and the new coronavirus, this novel coronavirus that causes that illness, has created this worldwide situation, we’re all aware of it, the pandemic, that is exhausting. Because it threatens lives, it’s taken away livelihoods because of how we’ve had to shut down. It’s affected people of color and marginalized populations even more than people with privilege. So it’s really intensified social injustice issues, as we know now after the murder of George Floyd. And so you have these at least three pandemics happening all at one which are really overwhelming in many ways.
But one is the viral pandemic, the second is the pandemic of racism, and the third is a pandemic that we’ve been talking about at Blue School for a long time that seems to go in the background but really is there all along, which is environmental destruction. It’s a slower threat, but it’s still there. And so for parents, our main job as we talk about in Power of Showing Up is to have these four S’s. Where you’re keeping your children safe, you’re seeing their internal life, you’re soothing them when they’re distressed, and you’re providing security. So safety, the first S. Seeing, really attuning to their inner mental subjective experience, second S. Soothing them, so you yourself need to have this spaciousness of your mind to soothe yourself so you can soothe them. And when they have these, and when ruptures are there, they're repaired, they get the fourth S, security. That’s kind of our overall framework.
The pandemic has threatened each one of these. And if you want, Dawn, we could go through them. Because it’s more than just the physical distancing, which unfortunately has been named social distancing. We need to keep physical distance, but we have to maintain social connection, not social distance. So that name really irks me. And what we can do then is say, well let’s go through those four S’s and how the pandemic is challenging us as parents to be present for our kids to provide these four S’s. Because there are very unique things that the pandemic is doing, and when you name them, as we say you can tame them. And if you want, we can just go through them one by one and see how do these four S’s get impacted by the pandemic across different ages.
DAN: I just feel both sad and inspired by our conversation, but also I want to recognize for all of us as parents that the pandemic is hard enough for yourself. And if this were just — if we were childless being in the world, it would be tough. You’d have to be isolated, you’d have to deal with your challenges to livelihood, you feel the sadness of everything going on. And you kind of work it out. But when you’re a parent, let’s start with the safety one, you know, there’s this deep, deep — you can call it an instinct, you could call it kind of a hard wired, deeply woven into your brain and your whole body, I’ve got to keep my offspring, my child safe. That’s my number one job in the world.
And here’s this little virus that we cannot see that we’re exhausted about thinking about. And just a few weeks ago when people said, “Oh, the pandemic is over. Let’s go out and party and —” Now the second surge is here. And you see this — it’s a statement I think a number of people have said. But human beings are done with the virus, especially in America, but the virus isn’t done with us. So it’s a challenge because now you see that about 40% of people are 45 or younger getting the illness. You see of course people with preexisting medical conditions and who are older are more vulnerable to getting serious COVID-19 and dying even. So that those things are terrifying, and then you know, recently as the New York Times reported this week, the discovery that no one wanted to accept, so the findings were pretty clear but people kept on fighting about it, and I think it was what’s called cognitive dissonance, you just didn’t want to see that that was true. Which is that a human being could have the virus, be contagious, and have no symptoms at that moment, or maybe no symptoms ever.
And what that does for mitigation, for reducing the spread, is horrendous. Because it means that any person who gets close enough to share the air with you, even if they’re not coughing or sneezing, could release the virus into either droplets of air, or vaporized distribution of the virus. Those are two different mechanisms. One drops towards the ground, so the six feet matters, but the other floats in the air. So if you’re in an elevator, even after no one is in there, this air can hold on to the virus for hours. So this means that the whole notion of safety is symbolized by a face covering. And the face covering works, with cloth face coverings primarily to reduce the droplet spread, and to make sure you’re not giving it to someone else. Not that you’re not going to get it yourself.
So all of these things, we can go on and on, washing your hands, not touching your eyes, your nose, your mouth, watching out for possible viruses that are on surfaces, all of these things have underneath them, I could die, or someone I love could die, or a fellow citizen could die. And when the brain gets alert constantly to death like that, it’s called terror management, or mortality salience. And all the studies show a number of things. That first of all it’s exhausting.
And it makes you polarize things. So it makes you say, who is in my in group, who is in my out group. You want to really protect your in group, like your children. And unfortunately, it makes you try to push away people in the out group. So the first thing to say is that deep within us as parents is a challenge to equilibrium and equanimity and balance and a feeling of it being at ease. So we need to do meditative practices to cultivate all of those qualities of clarity to be present, as Caroline talks about in her beautiful book, you know, The Gift of Presence, and I know you've heard from Caroline. These practices of presence, they’re not just luxuries anymore. The safety S of showing up is continually threatened by the pandemic in ways we want to try to forget and ignore and deny. But we deny them to our peril and the peril of those around us.
So the first S is start with your own internal sense of, I can have internal equilibrium, this open awareness state of presence. And I can then embrace the facts I’m hearing about the dangers of the virus that are real, hold those dangers in this more spacious awareness. I like to think of it like a very spacious container of water that can take a tablespoon of salt without being — without becoming undrinkable. And when you cultivate that broader, wider awareness, that’s this larger container of water, that’s awareness, then you can be ready to deal with the stress of the safety threat to your children. And without that, we just freak out, and it’s exhausting.
DAWN: In your book, you talk about the fact that as parents we can’t always protect our children. And I think you say that we shouldn’t always be preventing or fixing. And it feels like we’re in such an extreme moment right now. But is there a way that we should work to protect while also — not trying to overly fix or overly shield? Like is there a balance there?
DAN: You know, fortunately for children themselves, because thank the good lord, the virus doesn’t seem to want to do serious harm like it does to those of us who have inflammatory illnesses or illnesses of the heart or lungs or are older. And some of us fit into all of those categories, so it’s more of a threat to our life. Fortunately for young people, they can get the illness and spread it, but they themselves are not at risk as much of getting seriously ill and dying. Now we’re learning that the virus does lead to long lasting impairments, even neurological ones. So anything you can do to avoid this illness, even if you’re not going to die, would be important to do. So the question you’re raising, Dawn, is kind of like something akin to trucks barreling down a highway. So if you’re trying to parent your child and you live near a highway, do you let them step into the highway and see what it’s like to be run over by a truck so they can learn firsthand why not to run into their street and be run over by a truck?
Well no, you don’t, you know? You don’t use that as a testing ground where they might — if they’re using a hammer, and you’re over controlling how they use the hammer, and they don’t learn to be careful because they could hit their thumb, and ouch it hurts, and they get it fixed up. Or they learn to start using a knife, or they start learning to climb a tree, or they start learning to cook, and be careful of the hot pan, and you tell them about it but now they burned themselves. Okay, now they’ve learned. Those are examples where the outcome is not a disaster. It’s painful, but sometimes you have to learn from the pain. And so that’s what we mean by you can’t always be keeping all the painful experiences of life away from your child. The highway with the truck is a different sort of thing.
And the question then about the pandemic is, is this more like the highway with the truck? And I would argue that in some ways it is, so that the idea of using a mask to prevent other people from being sick like grandma or grandpa or you yourself if you’re over 65, it’s more like that. So I don’t think this is at the extreme place to practice parenting that teaches kids by direct experience of the negative outcome. I think you can talk to your kids about it — so this comes to the next S, about seen. And talk to them about how they’re feeling, and about the fears of what’s going on, and about the weird reality that sometimes there are things invisible like a virus that we need to use our intellectual mind to understand. And unlike a truck, or like these sirens coming in the background here, where you hear it outright even though maybe you don’t see the ambulance. You’ve got to have kind of an internal intellectual siren that you have to build by learning, by listening to the Center for Disease Control, and other reliable sources of information that might not be the government.
But they are physicians and scientists. Because science does matter. And teach your child then, you know, to — it’s basically kind of intellectual literacy, like what do I pay attention to and what do I don’t. And when you see pictures of people running around outside without masks, it’s unmasking the selfishness and the science ignorance of the American public in a large way. You know, to just go out there and say, “Oh, I don’t believe in it, or you’re just muzzling me,” or stuff like that. So this is an opportunity I think to teach about the nature of factual information and science. And that there are human beings on this planet that say science doesn’t matter, or they feel they can make up whatever they want. And the psychology of denial can be very dangerous. Whether you’re an alcoholic, or a gambling addict, or you’re a politician, or you’re just a citizen who says, “I don’t see the virus and I think this is all just some political lie.”
Well it’s just not true. So I think the seeing is to really see the fear that’s there, and share it together and say, “I feel frightened too.” And you don’t have to be like some super person who doesn’t have emotions. You’re a human being and you can talk about that, and say we have decisions to make. So that’s — I think you can blend the seeing in with this question you’re asking.
DAWN: Yeah, totally. So should we talk about soothing?
DAN: Yeah. I mean, soothing can be understood in the following way. If a child or adolescent feels distressed, that can come in the form of you’re feeling chaotic with a flood of emotions, or rigid, where your inner life is shut down. Either way, chaos, this flooding and being overwhelmed, or rigidity where you feel numb and disconnected are examples of not being in kind of a harmonious flow of — we call it integration. And in the Whole Brain Child or No Drama Discipline or the Yes Brain or the Power of Showing Up, all these books I’ve written with Tina Payne Bryson, or The Parenting from the Inside Out with Mary Hartzell. Or even Brainstorm. These are six parenting books that are resources, they all take a different angle on this process of creating integrative harmony.
And for us as parents, the soothing needs to begin with ourselves. If you’re in a state of distress because understandably your brain stem and your lower limbic area is beneath your cortex, so we call these the downstairs brain, if they’re on high alert because people are telling you over 120,000 people have died in the United States, that we have a second surge and it’s going to push up to 200,000, and your behavior as a parent will influence the outcome for you, your parents if they’re alive, your children. That’s a lot of distress inside of you. So the first thing is put your own oxygen mask on first. Take care of yourself, take your pulse, take a pause. And if your child is distressed, the key is to have the spaciousness of being present. So whatever their fears are or their anger, whatever their denial is of rigidity, or they’re being flooded with fear and chaos, just know that because of a system called the mirror neuron system which are more like sponge neurons, you’re going to sponge up the state of mind of your child.
That’s the first step of empathy, feel their feelings. If you over identify with those feelings, that is if you yourself are in denial, or you yourself are consumed with fear, then you’re just going to amplify the suffering your child is already in. So you need to make sure you have — in our view, it’s like a wheel of awareness, that all those feelings of either numbness or flooding are on the rim of a wheel, but the hub is where you have awareness. And when you do the wheel of awareness practice, you can learn, I can be in the hub and be aware of my own rim stuff. And if my child is telling me about what she’s distressed about, I can then, now that I have a big hub, this large container of water, I can take that tablespoon of salt of her distress and then be able to stay present with it. That’s what presence means.
So the soothing happens because if I’m your child and I’m numbed out or I’m terrified and full of fear, chaos or rigidity, either way is impatient to integration, I’m alone in that suffering. Now I share it with you. You give me the spaciousness to name it so I can tame it. And what that means is instead of being alone in my non-integrated chaos and rigidity, I become joined as a we, where my numbness or my fear doesn’t flood you. You give me the space where you, my mom, you, my dad, and me, your kid, become part of a we. And that’s where the soothing happens. Because when my isolated chaos or rigidity get joined with your spacious awareness called presence, that’s where I get soothed. Because now I’m a part of this big embrace, and there’s room for me to feel whatever I was feeling.
You don’t tell me to shut up, or just change the subject, or just quickly turn on some movie and distract me. You’re with me in what I’m experiencing. So you bring curiosity, openness, acceptance of what I’m feeling — you don’t tell me not to feel what I’m feeling. But the love there, and there’s an acronym COAL. Curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. And that’s where the soothing happens.
DAWN: There is so much empowering that you give parents. I think even the way you just explained sort of putting your own mask on first, that there’s this work. That if we do it for ourselves, we’re also doing it for our children. You talk about the fact that regardless of our own upbringing, we can still be loving, sensitive parents who still show up and raise happy and successful and fully themselves kids. Can you share some more of the work that we as parents might need to do to come to terms with our own childhoods?
DAN: Yeah. Well, thank you Dawn. You know, I just released the textbook for a graduate school called The Developing Mind into its third edition. And it’s 500 pages, so I’m not suggesting any parent get it or read it or anything. But I want to say there is so much science behind every practical tip, and every way that I respond to your questions. So people should just know this isn’t just out of like opinion or something like that. It’s practical suggestions built from decades and decades of research across many different disciplines. So if you happen to be a science lover like I am, and you want to see the science, go for the textbook. And you can get it from the publisher itself with a huge discount. They’re giving it out now because of the pandemic, I don’t know, but just go to Guilford Press and that’s the best way to get it if you want it.
And the issue there in terms of what to do is — when I first wrote the Developing Mind, in 1999 it came out, and our daughter was in preschool then. I wrote the book Parenting From the Inside Out to translate the Developing Mind into common parent language with Mary Hartzell, my daughter’s preschool director. And that book shows, and Tina Payne Bryson, my — originally she was my student, then my colleague, and now my co-author. What Tina and I did in the Power of Showing Up is kind of take the long lasting suggestions from Parenting From the Inside Out built from the Developing Mind and say, okay if you’re going to take exactly what you’re saying Dawn, which is say I didn’t have those four S’s when I was a kid. So am I in trouble?
And the answer is absolutely not. The research is so inspiring that no matter what happened to you, if you take the steps to make sense of how the things that happened to you impacted you, both directly and also how you had to adapt to them. The things that happened to you and also the things that were missing from you, like being loved and having affection and having someone keep you safe, or having someone see you or having someone soothe you. So sometimes there’s abuse, but sometimes there’s neglect, the absence of this stuff. So in all these ways, subtle or not so subtle, the great, great, great news is the research is absolutely clear, there’s no ambiguity here. You take the time to make sense, and even if you just took those two books, Parenting From the Inside Out and the Power of Showing Up and said, these are science based books based on attachment unlike parenting approaches that use the attachment word that really aren’t about the science of attachment.
So let’s be really clear, this is based on the science of attachment. I’m an attachment researcher, I’m trained in the science of attachment. This is a translation of that science for your use. And so the first step is to say, if I look at what happened to me when I was a kid and see, even if I stay with these four S’s, was I safe or not. And if I wasn’t, how was it repaired or not. And if it wasn’t really repaired, how did that impact me directly and how do I have to adapt to it. How did I need to survive? Sometimes we have a feeling of shame based on not being safe, like we deserve to be in danger. And the same thing is true with the other S’s. So seen, was I seen or not. Was my invisibility something that I thought was because I was not worthy of being seen. That’s what shame is all about, that I’m no good, and it’s sometimes a deep, painful feeling of being unworthy of being loved even. Or even being soothed, so that if I’m distressed, I feel like, well I deserve to be this way.
Now if those three S’s weren’t given to you and shame was a thing that happened, or even just a way where you don’t even know what these words are meaning. Well, the good news is shame is a healable adaptation that allows kids to survive when they don’t have these three S’s. When they don’t develop the fourth S of security, often shame is there. And sometimes, in fact often, it’s beneath the radar of awareness. So someone even with what’s called a shame dynamic, they don’t even know they have shame going on. So the good news about all this is shame is something you can work with. And even though there’s a conviction, I’m no good, it’s actually a false belief.
And the second thing is that as you go through the process of making sense, that’s the inside out approach, the Power of Showing Up says, okay now what do I do that I’ve made sense of my life. How do I act? And so in the Power of Showing Up, Tina and I had the fun of taking the third edition of The Developing Mind and saying, let’s make this book then build again on The Developing Mind and translate these exciting findings that have stood the test of time over basically 30 years, you know? And say, okay how do we then use this to really help parents show up, how they can be present. Because that’s ultimately what this is all about.
And this is where we get this wonderful, positive message. It’s never too late to make a repair with your kids if things weren’t with these S’s before. So that’s the great news. The second thing is, if you didn’t have these S’s, you can always make sense of your life, and it’s never too late to make sense. So these are really positive, realistically optimistic statements that come from science.
DAWN: It’s so lovely to hear you sort of make the connection between Parenting From the Inside Out to The Power of Showing Up. I had a really personal, visceral response to the ending of The Power of Showing Up, where you picture a child — or you ask the reader to picture their child going off to college. And I think I read Parenting From the Inside Out when Z, my child, was two years old. And your books have really informed the language of our parenting, and to have a 16 year old and start to picture that dropping off at college in a very real way was really powerful. So I thank you for that. And I thank you for all of the guidance that you’ve given to so many of us at Blue School over the past — over a decade. And thanks so much for this conversation today.
DAN: Well, thank you Dawn. I’m so happy to hear that these books are helpful. It’s hard to write a book, and the only thing that makes it worthwhile is just what you said. So you really gave me a gift. Thank you so much.
DAWN: Thank you Dan.
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