Ep. 64 – Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – How To Be A Harbour When Your Child Is A Storm
- 4 ways we help our children feel deeply known.
- The quality of MINDSIGHT - seeing your own mind and the minds of others.
- The biological benefits of choosing curiosity instead of shame when we disappoint ourselves.
This week on family360, we’re in conversation with New York Times Bestselling author, Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, talking about being present for our kids so they feel safe, seen, soothed and secure.
Seeking safety is a biological instinct. Our kids will naturally head for our harbour as long as they feel welcome, regardless of the storm. Listen to our conversation to learn more about the power of showing up.
Dr. Tina Payne BrysonDr. Tina Payne Bryson, PhD is the Founder/Executive Director of The Center for Connection, a multidisciplinary relationally based practice, and the Play Strong Institute, a specialist hub for play therapy for children and families.
Dr. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of two New York Times bestsellers: THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD and NO-DRAMA DISCIPLINE, as well as the recently released books THE YES BRAIN and THE POWER OF SHOWING UP.
She is a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who makes frequent media appearances and keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and clinicians all over the world.
Tina’s professional life now focuses on taking research and theory from various fields of science, and offering it in a way that’s clear, realistic, humorous, and immediately helpful.
Tina emphasizes that before she’s a psychotherapist, or author, or anything else, she’s a mom. She limits her clinical practice and speaking engagements so that she can spend time with her family. Alongside her husband of 21 years, parenting her three boys is what makes her happiest: “They’re my heart. Their personalities make life so much fun!"
Ep. 64 – Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – How To Be A Harbour When Your Child Is A Storm
Rachel Cram – Well, good morning, Tina. Thank you so much for coming to this conversation with me today.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Thank you so much for having me.
Rachel Cram – Oh, I’m so, so pleased to have you. I have been preparing for this topic for quite some time now, and I’m so intrigued by your book and so intrigued by your work. Huge implications for the world.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Thank you. I’m pretty proud of it. So I’m always so excited to get to talk about it.
Rachel Cram – Oh, well, this is going to be fun and I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Oh, thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well, before we jump into the conversation about the power of showing up, I’d love to have an opportunity to connect before you direct because last night I was in a somewhat heated discussion with one of my kids about, actually, what it was about is not important, but it was not going well. Anyway, I switched steps mid-stride and put your 4Ss into play, and wow! A game-changer for sure.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – I love it.
Rachel Cram – So, I really want our listeners to get to know you and your work well. So, I’d like to start with a question I often use at the beginning of interviews, and it’s from a quote from Aristotle, where he says, “Show me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” And that’s an interesting statement. I’m wondering, Tina, for you, how does that play out in your experience? Do you have a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah. When I was young, young, I mean, probably the age of ten, my best friend and I organized an entire summer activity program for all of the kids in our neighborhoods. And we created a flier, written out with markers laying out, like, what are we going to provide? How much is it going to cost? What are we going to do? What’s the schedule? And then we created a curriculum and we went and got prizes and snacks. And that is very much like me. I like to plan and organize and get things set up and be in charge of things. And I really have always been interested in children. And so yes, investing in children, investing in other people. And I still like markers and lists and being a planner.
Rachel Cram – So you have been honing these child nurturing skills for a long time.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yes, I have. In fact, by the time I was seven, I had decided really I was going to be a stay at home mom, and in fact, that was my plan all the way through. In fact, my husband and I got married quite young, but we waited until we could afford for me to stay home. But then, you know, life doesn’t always pan out as you planned. And so when my first son was 18 months, we determined that I had to go back to work. And I had a master’s degree at that point, and I said, “If I have to work, then I just need to get a Ph.D. really fast so that I can be a professor.”
And so that was kind of the beginning of the shift of this entire career change, because when I began the doctoral program, I met Dan Siegel and I started studying interpersonal neurobiology. And then I was taking what I knew and applying it to raising children. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s some stuff here that would help so many people. We have to share this.”
And so I had never planned on writing books or speaking or doing this as a job, but when I followed what lit me up, this is kind of what it led to. And so, yes, my love for children brought me here.
Rachel Cram Okay, two little forks in my thought process here. First of all, you want to become a professor because you thought that it wouldn’t be a lot of hours? What made you want to..?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Two things, I mean, one is and back to my original story, I always loved teaching. And in fact, my undergraduate degree was in education. I was going to be a high school English teacher because I love to write and read as well. So I knew that teaching would be really rewarding. But yes, it was the hours I wanted to be home with my kids in the summers and be done after school to pick them up. So that was my big driving force. But then the month that my baby turned six and started kindergarten, and I turned 40, The Whole Brain Child came out. It was all like the same month.
Rachel Cram – Which is your first book with Dan Siegel right?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – My first book with Dan Siegel. Right. But yeah, so what happened was he started kindergarten and the book came out and then the world changed for me. The book really exploded. And I was speaking and working more. And my baby was in school. So it allowed me to have those hours to do that. So the timeline of all that somehow worked out.
Rachel Cram – Well, I’m right there with you, there’s always a dance between motherhood and work and partnerships, and it’s complicated and beautiful.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – And changing all the time. Shifting, shifting. Just when you think you figured it out, somebody’s needs change. Maybe yours, maybe somebody else’s, but it’s a constant shifting experience.
Rachel Cram – Which keeps us nimble.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yes.
Rachel Cram – And through all the changing and shifting, to show up.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yes, absolutely.
Rachel Cram – Well, The Power Of Showing Up is really what you call ‘the bottom line of all of your books.’ And I think for Dan, that would be true as well. And you’ve written this, Tina. You say, “Any time we show up for people, it changes their minds and brains.”
That is such a powerful statement. What happens for our children when we’re able to show up, what does that do for their minds and their brains?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Well, as mammals, we are born to be connected to each other and we are born to use that connection to have a better chance of survival. So I promise I’m going to come back to that question but be patient with me for a second.
So when we think about what is attachment, attachment is fundamentally this inborn instinct that really drives us to get close to our attachment figure, someone who’s going to connect with us and protect us, in order to ensure our chance of survival. So if you’re a bear cub in the forest and you see a predator or you hear a scary noise or you get hurt, you have a biological instinct to ‘seek proximity’ is the fancy term, but, to get close, to go find your parent bear. Right? So you’re going to go find your mama bear and you’re going to get as close to them as you can. And when the mama bear, who also has a biological instinct to connect and protect her young because of this attachment, they get close to each other. So in this moment of threat, bear cub has a racing heart and tense muscles, and the fight flight freeze system gets activated. But the mama bear is like, “I’ve got you,” and really soothes the reactivity in the nervous system to bring them back to baseline physiologically. So really those moments of distress, the attachment figure shows up, it regulates our emotional and physiological states to bring us back to baseline.
And then that baby bear cub is like, “Okay, they’ve got me. Like, I can trust that I don’t have to be hyper-vigilant scanning the world for danger all the time because I know I’m on my own and no one, no one’s got me. Someone’s going to see my need and show up for me.”
So then that baby bear cub can play and explore and learn because they can use their attentional resources and emotional resources to get to be free, to do all the things they need to learn how to be safe in the world and all these things so that they can eventually do that for their bear cubs.
So it really is this biological instinct to need to get close and have someone show up for us when we are in distress. That’s really the foundation of what we’re talking about.
Rachel Cram – Thinking of the mama bear and other animals as well, those connection moments are the most heartwarming scenes when you watch shows like Planet Earth or other nature shows, because we all relate to that attachment and that need for security.
In your book, The Power of Showing Up, you explain how when we show up for others, they experience four significant realities, and those realities all start with an S. When we show up for others, you say they will feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. And Tina, I’m wondering, can we just go through each of those S’s one by one, maybe just spend a few moments on each? Because I think the first three safe, seen and soothed create the opportunity for security.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – That’s right. That’s right.
Rachel Cram – And that’s so what we want for our kids and that’s so much what we want for ourselves as well. Security.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s what we need more than anything right now is security. The world is really unpredictable and the brain really interprets unpredictability as potential threat.
The brain is actually a really sophisticated prediction machine. That’s really kind of in essence one way we could describe the brain, and what it does is to predict, because that allows us to stay alive, right? If we can predict what’s going to happen and what’s threatening and who’s threatening and these kinds of things.
So when the world is unpredictable, as it is right now, especially, that makes our nervous systems be more revved up for distress and constantly determining whether or not we are feeling a sense of threat or a sense of safety. You know, is this dangerous? Is this safe?
And so I think when the world is unpredictable, our brain doesn’t know what to anticipate which then can create a lot of reactivity and anxiety and all kinds of things.
So I love the four S’s because it’s another way to think about love, actually. And you’re right, we need it in all of our relationships right? So really, I mean, back to your question about the four S’s, the reason Dan and I came up with the four S’s is because we always love to try to come up with something that helps people remember. And those four S’s really are my North Star, so I’m looking forward to working through them.
Rachel Cram – Ok, good.
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Rachel Cram – Okay. Well, I’m wondering as we go through these, maybe let’s do it, first of all, as a perspective on how we offer these four Ss to our children. But then we can extrapolate it into partnerships or business relationships even as well. With safe being the first S, what do we need to consider as parents when we’re wanting our child to feel safe?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – So I actually will say that safe is the most important one. And so if our children do not feel safe with us, it’s hard for us to get too much further down the road.
Here’s what really it’s about in terms of safety, and that is for our kids to rest in knowing that we are the safe harbor. So no matter what storm is happening. So if you imagine your child’s a little sailboat, they’re out in the ocean, there are storms that are raging. Their sails are getting tossed about. And some of that is even coming from their own internal stimuli, like a big, overwhelming emotion. So they’re having a storm inside. We are the safe harbor that they can always come to.
So that’s a really big piece of it, is them knowing they cannot lose their love. We are always there to provide this safety to say, “I’ve got you.You’re here.”
And there are a couple of ways we violate safety. One is we become out of control ourselves, not directed at our children. And then one other way is we become kind of crazy yelling parents that’s more directed at them. So let’s talk about both of those.
If the person who’s supposed to keep you safe is out of control themselves, they’re screaming and yelling at a customer service representative on the phone. They’re being verbally aggressive, and of course physically aggressive would fit into this too, with the child’s other parent or with grandma or whatever. So if there’s a screaming match going on and the parent has really lost control, there’s no way that that child can feel like, “Okay, if a threat comes up or if I have a need, they’re going to be able to help me,” because the parent is so out of control. They can’t control what’s happening for the child. So that’s one way we can violate our child’s sense of safety is if we are out of control.
The other way is directed at them, right? So I don’t know about you, but I’ve had multiple moments, I have three boys, where I’m patient and I’m patient and I’m patient until I’m not. And then I flip my lid and I act immature and I yell. So I’m predictable, predictable, predictable. And then I become unpredictable.
So I often tell a lot of the same examples when I’m speaking publicly because I have permission from my children to share the stories. They’re like, “Sure, go ahead and share this one. You’re the one that looks crazy.”
But I was playing Yahtzee with my boys, this little board game, and they were fighting with each other and sibling conflict and them fighting was actually one of the most unpleasant parts of parenting, I think. So they’re fighting, fighting, fighting. And my volume on my reactivity just got dialed all the way up. And I started out with some petty, immature comments like, “Oh, it’s really fun to be hanging out with you guys tonight. Oh, this is great fun.”
So just really immature sarcasm. And then I ended up yelling at them and throwing the dice across the room. We now refer to this as the Yahtzee incident in our family. So I became unsafe. They knew I wasn’t going to hurt them. I had never hit them or hurt them physically, ever. But I was scary in my tone of voice, in my facial expression. I was giving cues of threat and I was unpredictable.
So what happens in those moments? And we all have them. We all have these moments where we are not predictable and we disrupt our child’s sense of safety, whether we lose our cool at somebody else or toward our children. The most important thing is so much hope from the research, and that is this, that if we make the repair with our child, it’s actually beneficial for them that we messed up. Like this is such great news, right?
Rachel Cram – Yeah, and thank goodness for that reality.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah, so here’s what happens. So I’m predictable. They feel safe. I become unpredictable. And then they have this feeling in their bodies like, ‘This doesn’t feel very good right now, and mom’s scary, and I don’t like this. And this relationship feels really messy right now.’
But they also know, based on many repeated experiences before, that I’m going to come make it right very quickly. So what this does for them is actually build relational resilience. So they sit in the messiness of conflict in relationship, but they feel safe enough because they know I’m going to come make it right. So then I say, “Oh, guys, I’m so sorry. I really wish I had handled that differently. I got so mad and I should have calmed myself down before I talked to you. And I sure shouldn’t have thrown the dice across the room. I really wish I had done that differently. Will you forgive me?”
And lots of times I ask for a do-over as well. And of course, they’re quick to forgive. We get back to what we’re doing. But what happened there is they learned how to make a repair because they watched me do it. They learned that relationships have some messy, bumpy conflict, and we can make it right again. And so this and I’m not perfect, so I don’t expect them to be. So there’s really all of these benefits that come as long as we make the repair and that that’s really key.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. A whole bunch of questions going through my head. And first of all, I want to say I love it that you threw the dice across the room because I feel like listening to that from you makes everyone go, “Okay. She’s normal.”
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah. I also tell a story at the end of, I don’t remember, I think it’s in No Drama Discipline. It might be in Whole Brain Child, where I admit to threatening to remove one of my children’s body parts. He stuck his tongue out at me. He was three and I was like, “You stick that tongue out one more time, I’m going to rip it out of you.”
I mean, it was terrible and not great parenting, but we do have those moments. And I think the other thing, too, is after those moments, a lot of times as parents, we go into the shame spiral. And I want to really encourage everyone that’s listening. Of course, you’re going to have moments where you are not proud of how you treated your child. You’ll treat your child in ways you would never let anyone else treat them; in things you say, you know, you may even grab an arm a little too hard and yank them into the car or, you know, these things that happen. I want you when you have regrets about a behavior that you have, this is actually an invitation. It’s an invitation to say,
“What got in the way for me to be the parent I wanted to be in that moment?”
And so I want you to move into curiosity instead of shame. Because shame actually makes us more likely to have a shorter window of tolerance, so we’re going to be more reactive. But if we go, “Okay, what was that about for me?”
And then we can reflect on, “Oh, gosh, I just acted just like my dad and I don’t want to do that.”
Or we go, “I’m so tired. I haven’t peed by myself in four years and I haven’t had an adult conversation. And that’s why I’m so reactive. So what do I need to be the parent I want to be?”
So when we move into curiosity, these moments of rupture really should be an invitation for us to do a little bit of reflection and then move on.
Rachel Cram – Do we need to repair ruptures every time? And I’ll just qualify that a bit more. We all are parenting with different capacity levels and I think right now the stats are that one in five of us have some mental health issue that we’re concerned with. You said, “If we want our home to be a safe harbor, we can’t be the storm.”
I think often we are the storm, but we’re not even aware that we are. And so we were not aware that there is a rupture that we’ve created with our child because of our own mental health concerns or our own pre-absorption with something else that’s happening. And so we don’t repair because we’re not even realizing that we disrupted them. How dangerous is that? How many times do we have to hit it on the head where we do repair at the right moments, where we do show up properly, where we are that harbor? What’s the leeway with that?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – I love that question so much. So, yeah, I would say, “If you want to be the harbor in the storm, you can’t be the storm.”
And then the next thing I say is, “When you are the storm,” because it’s inevitable, “make the repair.”
But you’re asking a really interesting question there, which is, “What if we’re not even aware that we’re the storm? Or what if our capacity is so low we don’t have any other option besides storm?”
The research is so liberating and lovely, again, full of hope. There’s some really strong research that shows that even the most attuned parents who provide the best secure attachment are really misattuning about 70% of the time. So really, that gives us a lot of leeway. A lot of leeway.
So the key is when we notice we’ve got these ruptures we make the repair. And sometimes it’s not in the moment. Maybe I’m so mad after I’ve thrown the dice that I can’t talk to anybody again without yelling. And so I might need to do it the next day. And maybe after three or four months, maybe someone’s going through pretty severe depression and they’re really kind of withdrawn from these kinds of reflective dialogs with their children. Once we get to capacity, what’s crucial is to help our children make sense of those experiences. We have to remember that we are meaning-makers for our children. And actually this is tied to the number one predictor for how well we are able to provide the four Ss, or secure attachment to our children, is not whether or not we had it with our own parents, but rather whether or not we’ve reflected on those experiences and made sense of them. Like to say, “You know, my parents didn’t show up for me.”
Or, “My dad did not make me feel safe ever.”
Or, “They did not see me. They didn’t understand who I was and that was really painful for me.”
So when we reflect on those stories and make sense of them, it actually integrates our brain in a way that allows us to become the parent we want to be, to provide the secure attachment.
So even in those moments, we can say to our children, “Hey, I know that I haven’t been around as much,” or “I know that you haven’t felt like you could come and talk to me because you know I’m having a really hard time right now. And I just want you to know I love you. And I know we’re going through something really hard right now, and I know we’re going to get through. And I appreciate you. And you don’t have to take care of me because I’m taking care of myself. And I know this might be hard for you.”
Rachel Cram – So, really what we’re doing is helping our kids feel safe through making sense of their experiences with us, the good, the bad and the ugly, in a way that lets them know they can talk to us if they are not feeling secure. Which is so sad but sometimes we just don’t have the capacity to show up like we want to.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Absolutely. Yeah. So, that also goes back to one of the most important things we can do is to care for ourselves in ways that allow us to build our capacity. And I think particularly women are, and myself included, have been somehow confused into thinking that anything we do to care for ourselves is selfish. And I think a lot of the things that people recommend for self-care are just basic things like, ‘Take a shower by yourself.’
I’m like, That’s what humans should do, is hygiene. Like no one’s telling men self-care is a shower, right? So I think we need to go beyond what we think about self-care and tend to ourselves, get the help and support we need. And this is usually how I sort of wrap things up, but I think it fits in very well here, which is, you can’t provide any of the four S’s if you don’t have someone who’s showing up for you.
So I think a big part of that is when parents capacity is really low, we need to really make sure that someone is helping us feel safe and seen and soothed and secure to build our capacity.
Musical Interlude #2
If you’d like to connect further with Tina’s writing and work, or if you’d like to read a written transcript of this conversation, find links at family360podcast.com. It’s all there waiting for you.
Rachel Cram – You’re saying we need to “make sure someone is helping us feel safe, seen, soothed and secure,” It’s tricky isn’t it, because often in adulthood, it doesn’t feel like there is anyone out there doing that for us. We’re maxed out, our partner is maxed out, our friends are maxed out. But if we know we’re going to miss showing up like we want to show up 70% of the time, like you just said, of course, that means our partner or the people around us will also miss showing up 70% of the time, so I guess we have to make space and grace for that reality.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Absolutely. And curiosity about what our role might be in that, too.
And I think, you know, one other thing that helps us build our capacity is there are things we can do to amplify or cultivate a feeling of safety in our families. One is creating as much predictability as we can. So even if you don’t feel like you have the emotional capacity to really be present, creating rhythms in your family, like Sunday night’s our family game night or, I always make oatmeal on Thursday mornings. I sometimes have had my kid make a playlist for music we listen to on school mornings. So creating rhythms and predictability can create safety for all of us. Another thing that helps us cultivate a sense of safety in our families is play and laughter and really having moments of shared joy. It might be that you’re like, “I do not have the capacity to play,” but you can put on a YouTube video of goats that are screaming and laugh with your child, even if it’s just a couple of minutes.
So anytime we are laughing, we are bringing play and playfulness. There’s a lot of science that shows us that states of play and playfulness are actually pretty opposite of states of threat and worry. Really, any time we can add silliness or play or laughter, it’s so good for our kids because, well, for a million reasons. But it does cultivate a sense of safety for us and our children.
Rachel Cram – Tina, this is so good. Just before we move off safety and onto seen, a phrase you use that I think applies here is, “Our goal is not perfect but present.” And I repeat that to myself because I get caught up in pursuing perfection far more often than would be perfect. It almost trips me into a kind of cage that defeats the safety I’m really wanting to provide. Not perfect but present.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah. Isn’t that liberating? Let’s just say that again. Not perfect, but present. And I’m kind of a perfectionist, I’ll be honest. I mean, you heard my little summer program situation. I’m like, on all the details, but we can mess up all the time as long as we make the repair. You know, presence is really about showing up in the moment with yourself and just tuning in.
Here’s my favorite present story. I was speaking somewhere and a woman came up to me afterwards and she said, “I loved what you were saying about presence.” And she said, “I’m a chaplain. And I go into hospital rooms where people are in their last hours and days.” And she said, “The most important thing I do when I walk in that room is that I sit down. She just stopped.
And I said, “Why is that the most important thing?”
And she said, When I sit down, it communicates to the person, You’re important to me. I have time for you and you matter.”
And I think that’s really about presence. It’s such a beautiful way of thinking. It’s like you really try to tune in and show up with as much of yourself as you can in that moment and you’re with your child. So much of the time, we’re like doing things to our child, we’re navigating all the nuts and bolts. But if there are just a few moments throughout the day where we’re really just with our child. Singing a song together that’s on the radio. You know, whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be constructed. It’s an organic moment where we show up in that moment.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. I love that story. Thank you.
Okay. Well, safe is the first and you say perhaps the most important. Without that, we can’t keep moving on. Your second S is ‘seen’ and this is not just seen with the eyes, you and Dan write about having mindsight. Which is a really cool term and concept. I liked this a lot.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah. So mindsight is seeing your own mind and the minds of others. That’s a term that Dan coined, a lovely term. So ‘seen,’ I think is actually the hardest. So let’s get dirty with this one because I want to challenge all of us to do it. It’s hard because as a culture we are really, really focused on the external instead of the internal. And we’re really, really focused on behavior as opposed to what’s happening that’s causing the behavior, right? But here’s what this really is. The ultimate goal of ‘seen’ is for your child to grow up and be able to say, “My parent understood who I am. They saw me for who I am. They loved me for who I am, not who they wanted me to be.”
That’s kind of the ultimate goal, is that they feel known in a deep way. In the moment what this requires of us, which I think is really hard, is for us to tune into the mind or the internal experience behind the behavior.
Rachel Cram – So, the reason for why the behavior is happening instead of the behavior itself.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Totally. So I can give lots of examples of ways I’ve done this poorly, which is really helpful sometimes. So let me give a couple of examples. One is, so I tell my kid, I’m going to pick you up after school, he’s probably eight or nine, I’m going to pick you up after school and I’m going to take you to the movies. It’ll be so fun. Like, what a fun surprise. We’re going to do this today. And he lights up and he’s so excited. This is so fun. And he says, “Can we get popcorn too?”
And I said, “No, we’re not going to get popcorn today. We’ve had a lot of junk food. I’ll bring you a snack, a healthy snack for on the way to the theater.” And he begins to pout.
So my first instinct is, “Are you kidding me? Like, I’m doing this nice thing for you, and I’m surprising you and you’re going to pout about what you’re not getting like you’re so spoiled and you have no idea how good you have it. And now you’ve hurt my feelings because I was planning something fun for you and your pouting.”
That’s my first response internally. And that’s my thought bubbles.
So what I might do when I’m having that internal response is minimize his feelings and criticize his expression of those feelings. So when we minimize and criticize, so what that might look like, and I can give you examples of that real easily, is to say, to say that like, “Are you kidding me? I can’t believe you’re pouting. I was going to take you to the movies, and now you’re pouting about what you’re not getting. I can’t believe you’re doing that. And, you know, you need to be more grateful for what you have. Do you know how many kids never get to go to the movie theater?”
And then I start lecturing? Right. But here’s what happens if I do that. My child has an actual feeling of disappointment. Okay. So he does feel disappointed about this breaking news that he’s not going to get popcorn. So he feels disappointment and he shares it with me. The pout comes out and he looks at me. And so he’s sharing his feelings with me. Remember, the brain is also an association machine. So what happens then in that moment is my kid’s like, “Hmm, I just shared how I felt with my mom and the way she responded did not feel good. That didn’t feel good at all. So I’m not sure I want to share with her this much the next time.”
So here’s what I want to do in that moment. What I want to do in the moment is remember that behavior is communication. So he’s communicating to me a skill he still needs to build. So I’m going to put a pin in that and I’m going to say, okay, at dinner time, we’re going to start having a gratitude practice. And we’re going to also talk about how other people in the world live. And we’re going to also talk about how to be a gracious receiver of something that someone offers you. So those are all skills we’re going to work on. He’s eight, like we’ve got some time, so I’m going to work on those skills. But in this moment I’m going to show up. I’m going to tune into the mind and the experience behind this pouting behavior.
So what that looks like, is I say, “Oh, wait a minute, you looked really excited a second ago, but now you look disappointed. What happened there?”
So I’m coming with curiosity. I’m tuning into his experience because I want him to feel, felt and understood. And he said, “Well, last time we went to the movies, we got popcorn. And I love popcorn so much. And we never go and we never get it. So I just when I got excited about the idea of that and when you said no, I felt disappointed.”
Okay, that’s legit. He’s allowed to feel disappointed. When I don’t get what I want, I feel disappointed. That’s a healthy human response. So I say, “Yeah, of course you felt disappointed. You wanted something, you got excited, and then it didn’t happen. And so, yeah, it’s okay to feel disappointed. I get that. Now, we’re still not going to get the popcorn, but do you still want to go?”
So I’m saying no to the behavior. I don’t have to change my boundary, but I’m saying yes to him and yes to his experience and yes to him sharing how he feels with me. I’m legitimizing and honoring how he feels. So this is what I’m talking about seen. We have to swim past the behavior sometimes and respond in a way that is a match.
Rachel Cram – What do you mean by a match?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – So what I mean by that is when my four-year-old is “I’m not getting out of the bathtub.” And he’s furiously splashing and I’m going to make him get out. I’m going to hold the boundary because being predictable and having boundaries helps our kids feel safe. Right? So this is not about being permissive. So I say, “It’s time to get out. You can get out or I will help you out.”
And he says, “I’m not getting out.”
And so as I lift his body out of the tub, I’m going to practice ‘seen’ and I’m going to say, “You’re so mad about having to get out of the tub. Is that right? You really didn’t want to get out.”
Rachel Cram – So, the way you’re responding, with being calm and the words you’re saying ‘sees’ him, beyond his behavior and your matching with your words to what you think he’s feeling inside? That’s what you’re saying.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Right. That’s meaning-making. I’m helping him understand what he’s feeling and all of these things. But he also then knows, my mom gets me. She understands how I feel, how I feel makes sense in the world. So it’s really, really hard to do because I’m seeing a kid tantruming in the bathtub and I want him to get out. Or my kids pouting and I feel like he’s being a spoiled brat. It’s really hard when your kids are being disrespectful to you and coming at you. It’s really hard to not focus on the behavior and to instead see what’s really happening, seeing inside their mind and what’s happening.
Rachel Cram – Well and so often in those situations, the way our eyes go is inward, right? Like we start to see all of ourself, of where we’re hurt and where we’re affronted and where we’re frustrated. As you were going through those stories, a couple of thoughts came to my mind. One is that ‘seeing’ is not judging. It’s not putting a judgment on the emotion or the behavior. But ‘seeing’ is also not satisfying. Like, satisfying is not one of your S’s. It’s not saying, “Oh, I see you don’t want to get out of the tub. Okay, you don’t have to get out of the tub or you want the house tidy all the time. Okay, I’ll tidy the house all the time. You want sex every night of the week. Okay, I’ll give you sex.”
Seeing is not satisfying, those are important lines, but it’s being present. There’s this layer after layer to the truth of this that gets us down into the heart of deep, intimate, healthy relationships. But it’s not easy to show up like this. ‘Seeing’ takes a lot of thought and practice. It’s hard.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – It’s so hard. And I think so much of the time, let me say it this way. I think every time I’ve responded as a parent or a wife in a way that I wish I had done differently, it’s always because I’m responding out of my own internal reactivity as opposed to what’s happening with the other person, right?
So this is not easy to do. It requires practice. But we know that the brain changes from practice. We can’t be present if we’re reacting, right? So the brain is either in this receptive present state or it’s in a reactive state. When we’re in a reactive state, we really can’t do the other. Our neural circuitry doesn’t allow us to do that. So it requires us to really kind of pause, take a moment, gather ourselves. My kid needs me right now. And really, when they’re at their worst, that’s when they need us the most. So I often will tell myself that, and that helps me in that moment say, “Oh, you’re so mad, you don’t want to get out of the tub.” Right. That can be helpful.
Rachel Cram – So good. Thank you Tina.
Musical Interlude #3
Our conversation is not over yet. Stay for the conclusion with Dr. Tina Payne Bryon, coming up in just a moment.
For our next episode we’re with early childhood educator and international speaker Tom Hobson, also known as Teacher Tom.
The episode is full of heartwarming stories and daily examples of the power of play. Tom shares from over 2 decades of research and practice with preschoolers and speaks to all the best ways we can “let kids learn.” Join us!
And now, back to our conversation with Tina as she moves into talking about soothed and secure, the third and fourth powers of showing up.
Rachel Cram – Okay. Let’s move on to soothed. So safe was your first, seen was your second, soothed is your third power of showing up. And this carries on kind of from what you were just saying, remembering that at our worst that is when we most need connection and help. That’s when we need to be soothed.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Right? When we’re the most unlovable that’s really the most love. Right?
Rachel Cram – Which makes opting for soothing very challenging.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah. So, you know, soothing can get really off track by us thinking that means it’s our time to solve or satisfy, like you said, right?
So, if my college kid calls me and he’s like, “I’ve got a test in 2 hours and I was up all night studying and I’m so tired and I don’t know what I should do. Like, should I email the professor? I’m just so stressed out.”
I don’t have to fix it. It’s not my thing to solve. I can just show up in the moment, be like, “Oh, sweetie, that sounds like so much. It sounds so stressful.” And I might even say, “What’s your plan?” Or, “How can I help?”
But I’m sure not going to email his professor and all of those things. Really he needs to feel felt right, like someone understands. But soothing is not solving. We have to remember that because I think a lot of times as parents we have an epidemic of over-functioning for our children and doing things for them in ways that undermine their autonomy and their development and make them feel like we don’t think they can handle things.
Now I want to say that, I’ve done the parenting thing. I’m still in it. But I got better over time as I learned things. And I used to spend a lot of mental, emotional and attentional energy in moments when my child was having a really hard time or acting out, trying to figure out, what do I do? How do I fix this? How do I stop this? And I’ve learned because of this research that I don’t have to do all of that because soothing is actually really simple. It’s about showing up in that moment and helping them move back into a calm state.
Rachel Cram – I wonder if it’s less obvious with younger kids because we are still more clearly in charge and we feel the urge to be more of a fixer? Can you give an example of soothing with a younger child?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah of course. So here’s what soothing looks like. Bedtime. Older brothers get to stay up later so the little guy is furious. It’s so unfair. They get to stay up and I have to go to bed. And so he’s falling apart. Falling apart. And I’m trying to read a book to him. We’re snuggled up in his bed, but he’s like a fish out of water, flopping flopping because he’s so angry. It’s not fair. You’re so mean, you know, he’s coming at me, he’s attacking me. And again, my first instinct is to, “Look, if you’re going to act this way, you’re not going to get a story tonight. I’m going to leave because I don’t. This is not fun for me. And so I’m out. And so you do your own thing and put yourself to bed and I will see you tomorrow. You’re clearly really tired.”
Rachel Carm – Oh goodness, I’ve done and said things like that to my kids so many times because it feels like the only option at that moment.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – It’s hard.
Rachel Cram – It is. Those moments are very consuming. What’s the result of a response like?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – That is a lose-lose because first of all, it doesn’t teach my kid anything so that he can do better the next time. So it’s not good discipline, which is always about teaching and skill building, and it’s going to make him more upset, meaning it’s going to be less likely he’s going to go to sleep, which he needs. Right. So instead of figuring out what do I say and how do I draw the line and all this stuff, all I have to do is show up. So I say to him, and I practice ‘seen’ as part of that because being seen is part of being soothed. So this is why we put them in this order. So I can say to him, “It’s so hard when things feel unfair. That’s a really icky feeling, isn’t it? You’re so mad. It feels so unfair. Is that right?”
And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s so unfair.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, that feels really bad sometimes. And when you don’t get to stay up like you want to, that feels really bad too. It’s really hard when you don’t get things your way. I know, honey, that’s really hard. And, JP, I’m right here with you while you feel it.”
Rachel Cram – And that’s it? That’s all you have to say?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – And that’s it. And then, you know, he’s going to flop for another minute and I might wait a minute or two, I might try to rub his back or I might ask, What do you need? Or How can I help? And then I can say, Do you want me to read? Let me know when you’re ready. But I’m just here with you until you’re ready. And what that lets him know, so much of the time we don’t mean to do it, but we communicate to our kids, “I’m only interested in being in a relationship with you when you’ve got it together.”
So we say, “If you’re going to act that way, go to your room, and when you’re ready to be nice, you come back out.”
So what we’re communicating in that moment is “I’m only interested in connection with you when you’ve got it together,” and I want my kids to know at your worst, I’m going to show up for you. I’m here. I’ve got you. You cannot lose my love.
And then the other thing that gets communicated when I do that is he gets the sense that I trust that he can handle those big feelings. And the way that kids develop resilience is by practicing dealing with difficult things with enough support. So when kids have big feelings, difficult things happen, adversity with support, they get resilience. Without support, it makes them more fragile. So all I have to do is give him this experience. So that he comes out of it saying, okay, I guess I can handle unfairness. I guess I can handle disappointment of not getting my way.
And he also learns that I can handle his big feelings. And so those are really important things that happen by just me saying, “I see how you feel and I’m right here with you.” It’s really simple. It takes away so much of what I was trying to do to just be present like that. And, it’s really powerful.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it’s so powerful. When I put myself into situations like you’re describing, I think the impetus to solve destroys our capacity to soothe because our brain is spinning on, “well, is my child you know, are they selfish? Are they, what’s the lesson that I need to teach right now? How do I need to get them shored up and lined up so they can become the person that I want them to be?”
And I think when we get that North Star back again, this is what I’m finding for myself. When I see that North Star, it is what lets you let go of all the solving, all the controlling that I know I have a tendency for as well. And just go, “No, all I have to be is here. Nonjudgmental, non solving, loving.”
And then you’re on track again. You’re following that that Northstar.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – And it works. They get regulated faster.
Rachel Cram – It works, but we have trust that that works. And it takes a number of times, I would say I have not hit those number of times yet to know that just lean into this, lean into presence, soothing, not solving.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – And usually it requires a slowing down a little bit. I’m a really fast paced person. In fact, my son’s preschool teacher one time told me, “Your rhythm is about ten times faster than your child’s. You really need to slow down.” It was really helpful feedback.
Rachel Cram – That was a brave preschool teacher telling that to Dr. Tina.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – She’s a brave woman. Her husband’s a therapist friend of mine, so we knew each other. But yeah, people don’t always love getting that kind of feedback. But I appreciated it. It did ruffle me for a minute. I’m like, well, I know my kid, like a little bit defensive, but she was right about that. But it does require us to slow down. And I know usually we’re in a hurry because we have multiple kids and we’ve got all these things and you know, the schedules breathing down on us. But often if we slow it down for one minute, it’ll actually save us time.
Rachel Cram – Ok! Noting that! Seeing and soothing will actually save us time. That’s helpful to know.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah, the other thing I want to say that gets in the way of us being able to do this is our own fear, so fear-based parenting, that if we do this, we’re going to raise children who are indulged and spoiled and weak. That’s a lot of the feedback I get, is like, “Okay, so your kids like flopping on the bed. They’re not obeying, he’s yelling at you, and you’re going to comfort him and soothe him? Are you kidding me? Isn’t that going to turn him into a spoiled brat who thinks the whole world revolves around him?”
And the science is really clear about this, is that the way we develop to self-regulate, to calm our own nervous systems is by having lots of practice with someone helping us do this.
Just like when I lift a weight repeated times, I do reps with my weight, I’m going to build my muscles. This happens in terms of experiences in the brain. So each time our kid is dysregulated and we show up in that moment, we help them name what they’re feeling and comfort them and soothe them and get them back into a state of regulation, that is a rep for their brain to practice regulation. So their brain was like, “Oh, this is what it feels like to have my heart beating really fast and my muscles tense and all of this adrenaline and cortisol in my body and to move myself back to baseline.”
So it’s a rep for helping kids be better at regulating themselves. So it’s the opposite of spoiled. It’s actually giving them these incredible skills.
So parents worry that if they do this, the outcome is not going to be good. And I’m telling you that the science is pretty clear that the outcome is great.
Rachel Cram – Well, that’s probably a great segway into your last S, secure, because if we can allow our child to feel safe and seen and soothed, you’re saying that’s what paves the path for a child that feels secure.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah. And what we mean by that is based on these repeated experiences, this association predictability machine of this brain of ours comes to know that my parent is not perfect, but they’ve shown up for me enough times that I am secure in knowing and my brain has now wired to know and predict and expect that if I have a need, they’re going to see it and respond to me. They’re going to show up for me and I can count on them. And all of that leads to great brain development and allows them to rest into being a child and learning and being curious and all that.
Rachel Cram – Like the bear cub. They can play and explore knowing someone is watching out for them.
Tina Payne Bryson – Totally. Totally. But something more important happens besides that sense of security, of saying, I know my needs are going to be seen and responded to at least most of the time enough, right? Something else happens, and that is that their brain then learns how to show up for themselves. They learn how to keep themselves safe. They learn how to see and understand themselves. All of that is helping them build that mindsight of understanding their own minds and the minds of others. And then it’s what I was just saying, they learn how to soothe themselves, their brain wires for how to do that, their nervous system knows what that feels like.
So when we do this, as we make steps toward helping our kids feel safe, seen and soothed, it’s changing your child’s brain and it’s having an intergenerational impact because then they learn how to show up for others and choose healthier partners, and they learn how to show up for themselves and other people and this is super powerful.
Rachel Cram – Super powerful, because the reality is, as we move through life, we are going to have times where there is nobody who’s doing that for us. And so if we’ve got the capacity to keep ourselves safe, to see ourselves, to soothe ourselves, to feel secure, that carries us through those times where there’s nobody else who’s doing it for us.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – I love that you said that. And that’s exactly right. And then there’s another layer to that, which is, if you are really alone, it’s really important that we cultivate a friendship or, this is what I told my boys, both of them when they left for college. “When you feel alone, and you will, you’re leaving everything you know, when you feel alone, know that there are people around you who also feel that, reach out, make a connection, do it for somebody else, and it will also serve you.”
So I think that’s a big piece is if we really are alone, we can really take steps to cultivate connection because there are other people who feel that way too.
Rachel Cram – Oh, Tina, this is such important information to ponder. Thank you. As we draw to a close I’d like to see what you do with this question. It’s a broad one but it ties in with cultivating connection with others. I’m wondering in the midst of all your research and what you now know about how our brain works and how society is working. What’s your hope for humanity in all of this? If we can raise secure children, what do you envision emerging into our homes, into our communities, and into our world?
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Yeah, I love that question. This type of experience of becoming someone who has a pattern of secure attachment, our brains change when this happens and we have better functioning prefrontal cortices, meaning we have greater capacity for that mindsight we talked about. To have insight and see ourselves. To have empathy for others. To make sound decisions. To have even better morality. And so as we create more experiences for children to grow up in this way, we’re changing who they become. That is going to be game changing in terms of how we treat other people in the world, that more receptive, curious brain as opposed to a reactive one.
There’s so much despair and destruction and disconnection and distraction. Right. These are the four Ds that Dan Segal talks about. The antidote to all of those things is the four S’s. The greatest thing we know that heals is love. And so when we learn to show up in our families and to show up for ourselves, it changes our brains, it changes our families, it changes our societies, and it changes our world.
So I do this in my family, I do this in my businesses, I do this in all my relationships as best I can. And I believe that as we do that we really can truly change the way things work in the world for the better.
Rachel Cram – Oh, Tina thank you so much for this conversation. There is so much important information to chew on this. It’s really rich. Thank you.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Of course. Thank you so much for having me and help amplify this important message for us and our families and our world.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I’d love to talk with you again.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – I would love that.
Roy Salmond – Thank you, Tina.
Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Thank you. Nice to meet you and have time with you.
Some people forget that love is
tucking you in and kissing you
no matter how young or old you are
Some people don’t remember that
listening and laughing and asking
no matter what your age
Few recognize that love is
no fun at all
You and me