A few weekends ago my husband was happy to release me from the weekend shuttling (Korean school, violin, dance and a 4-year-old birthday party) to allow me to go to a few lectures being held on parenting. One was by Dan Siegel from UCLA on “Parenting with the Brain in Mind: An Inside Out Approach to Supporting Children and Adolescents in the Digital Age.” He started his talk with a lot of science—attachment theory, self -regulation, integration. He tried to put everything in as simple terms as possible (and if you are really interested, buy his book Parenting from the Inside Out rather than rely on my layperson’s summary!).
Basically, the science goes like this: Children who are better attached (bonded) to their parents are better at self -regulation (i.e. calming their emotions, relating to others, having grit and sticking with something when it is difficult) which contributes to higher levels of “integration” in the brain (the development of a healthy mind). Don’t we all want to develop healthy minds in our children?
Siegel argues it is essential for us and our children to develop what he calls mindsight (insight, empathy, compassion and kindness) in a digital age where there is so much distraction. His biggest concern with the internet is its focus on the outside instead of the inside world. In other words, computer games are not going to build compassion and self-regulation in our children.
So let’s go back to the source—attachment. How do you develop better attachment and, therefore, more mindsight in children? He pulls his number one recommendation from Mary Ainsworth at U.C. Berkeley. Her research says that you develop better attachment with children (and thus better mindsight) when you make sense of your own attachment narrative with your parents (how you were raised). He said you can’t change how you were raised, but if you take the time to make sense of it, you can better control the way you respond in difficult situations (and actually” repair” the damage when you respond with less than adequate mindsight—the moments when you are so frustrated, when you basically lose it with your children.) Understanding your own family narrative will help open up your ability to support healthy attachment, which is done by making the child feel seen, soothed, safe and secure.
I thought about teachers: what is their narrative? Why do they teach and how do you remember your own teachers? This is probably why so many teachers are good at creating mindsight in their students. They had a positive narrative with past teachers and are able to transfer that to their students. This is me, the amateur inter-relational neurobiologist, thinking out loud.
The good news for parents (and I suppose teachers) is that there is no such thing as perfect parenting (or perfect relationships with your students). Siegel used the term “repair” to explain that we can make a mistake (i.e. yell at our students or kids or get super frustrated or say something not so nice) and then “recover the ball” with different actions and because of the neuroplasticity of the brain (the brain can actually change in response to experiences).
So the next time you get frustrated with your child or children (teachers and parents alike), he suggests that you reflect on what triggered your response and then have a dialogue about what the child is feeling. This “reflective dialogue” as he called it can focus on SIFT: Sensations you are both feeling; Images you are seeing; Feelings arising; or any Thoughts running through your mind.
He noted that in a digital world (when there is so much “eye candy”), it’s even more important to help our children focus on what is going on inside their mind (especially when we take away the iPad or iPod or television privileges). He said getting ourselves to notice our own non-verbal cues when we are talking to our children is a good starting place. What are my (and their) eye contact, facial expression, tone, posture, gestures, timing and intensity communicating? I have a feeling those seven non-verbals are always front of mind for teachers in the classroom, and their job seems infinitely harder than a parent’s because there are 30-plus sets of non-verbal cues being thrown at them every minute of the school day.