Susan talks with psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel about attachment, including a discussion about the number one predictor of how children will become attached to a parent. Susan and Dan also talk about the importance of understanding that there is no such thing as perfect parenting–and how to make relationship repairs when we’ve temporarily lost our way as parents.
Things you’ll learn from this episode:
• The number one predictor of how well your children will attach to you
• The importance of “Alloparenting”
• Why we should stop trying to be perfect parents!
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Speaker 1: (00:14)
Hi everyone. Welcome to the parenting without power struggles podcast. I’m your host, Susan Stiffelman. I’m a marriage and family therapist and the author of parenting without power struggles and parenting with presence. This podcast reflects my work with families for well over 40 years as a teacher and a parent educator and a family therapist. And I have learned a lot. I’ve learned so much from the parents I’ve worked with and taught and, and I’ve learned so much from collaborations with incredible wise, wonderful speakers like my guest on this episode, Dr Dan Siegel. Hi Dan.
Hi Susan. So great to be here with you.
Well, let me tell people a little bit about you. Um, although you’re everywhere and so hopefully people have found your work, but if not, I urge you to go right now and look him up. Or as soon as the podcast is over, Dr Dan Siegel’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of medicine, the founding co-director of the mindful awareness research center at UCLA and really pioneered this field of interpersonal neurobiology as well as the concept of mindsight.
Speaker 1: (01:23)
He’s the author of brainstorm the power and purpose of the teenage brain. Oh my gosh. That book is so fantastic. Um, and the coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, the whole brain child and parenting from the inside out. Dr Siegel’s most recent book is aware of the science and practice of presence. He’s lectured for many distinguished audiences, including the king of Thailand, Pope John Paul, the second, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and London’s Royal Society of Arts. And you’ve also on a much smaller scale, been on many of my online parenting summits as well as partnering with me and teaching that raising self-reliant kids in the digital age, online masterclass. So it’s always a joy to talk with you and to learn from you. Dan, welcome. I’m very happy that you’re here with us. Thank you for having me. So my work emphasizes the importance of attachment as a foundation for parenting, but I use the term in a much broader sense than the way it’s often used in in some cases, getting controversy, attachment, parenting, which people think means wearing your baby in a sling all day or sleeping with your child every night. I see it as much more than that and in lots of your work and particularly parenting in the inside out, you’ve really delivered a beautiful way of thinking about attachment and in attachment style you talk about secure, avoidant, ambivalent, anxious and disorganized. Would you, would you talk about that? Sure. Right.
Speaker 2: (02:54)
Well, I thank you for bringing it up because the word attachment is used by different people in different ways. So as a scientist, you know I’m trained as an attachment researcher and that means I’m a part of a field called attachment theory and research, which is a branch of the field of developmental psychology where we study how the mind develops in childhood and in attachment research. What we do is we studied parent child interactions and then explore how those attachment relationships shaped the way a child develops either in a positive direction, for example with resilience, insight, empathy, morality, um, kind of flexibility in the way they live, a sense of vitality or the opposite of all that. So not self aware, not empathic, not compassionate, not moral, and even inflexible. And what’s fascinating about it is there are certain principles that have come from studying many, many, many cultures.
Speaker 2: (04:01)
So it’s not just the United States or just western culture. We can study this in various cultures and find that these principles we can talk about, um, emerge as kind of universals of what human beings need to develop well and they are. And those principles are quite simple. Um, Mary Hartsville and I wrote a book as you mentioned, parenting from the inside out that basically says that the number one predictor of how your children will become attached to you is how you’ve made sense of what happened to you when you were a kid in your childhood. And it is not what happened to you itself, but actually how you relate to what happened to how you’ve made sense of it so that people sometimes say, well, I don’t really want to look to my past because I can’t change my past. My past was pretty painful or meaningless.
Speaker 2: (05:05)
So why would I look at it? And the quick, um, response to that very understandable thought. Why should I look to the past because I can’t change it is in fact that the research is clear. If you do not reflect on your past, you are likely to repeat it on automatic pilot. And you know, certainly if you’re past like for about two thirds or a half, depending on the study of the population, sure you had a loving, secure relationship with your parents. And so you’ll just repeat that. That’s fine. But for about a third to a half of us, you know, if we don’t reflect on the past, the research shows we’re likely to go on automatic pilot and just repeat what was done to us. So if you’re in this third to a half the group that doesn’t really want to have happened to their kids, what happened to us, then what we need to do is take the time to reflect on the past and make sense of it, which the inside out approach invites you to do. Yeah. Yeah. And that’s, that’s the first principle. Make sense of what happened to you so you can free yourself from the prison of the past and give your child the essentials, which we can mention next of what secure attachment is based on.
Speaker 1: (06:24)
And one of the things that I’ve noticed and talked about in almost all of the work I’ve done is the opportunity that having children affords us, meaning that if you don’t have a child and you had a rough past, you may not be as motivated or compelled to heal those things from your own childhood as when that little one is right in front of you. Have you seen that?
Speaker 2: (06:47)
No, completely. In fact, that’s, you know what happened to me, it was a, exactly what you’re saying. I mean I became a, I started in pediatrics, became an adult psychiatrist, went to child and adolescent psychiatry, then became an attachment researcher. Um, and then as I was doing that in my, my National Institute of Mental Health Attachment Research, I had our, uh, my first child. So my Caroline, my wife and I at our first child. And things happen that you never could have predicted that I write about in parenting from the inside out. That in many ways, no matter how much intellectual study and theoretical knowledge you have or even empirical involvement you are in, in studies, research studies, um, you really have to be present for what’s going on. And that really made me aware of, you know, what I call the four s’s of attachment, which are the principals we can talk about, you know, to get security in your attachment relationships.
Speaker 2: (07:47)
So you don’t say that child is secure, it’s not a description of the child. It’s actually a description of the relationship of the child to a particular caregiver. And that raises an important starting place, which is we as human beings have something called aloe parenting. Aloe means other parenting as a caregiver attachment figure. So we evolved as humans to share child rearing beyond just the mother’s caregiving. So if you see a program that says, oh, we’re this kind of parents, or you’re this kind of parenting that says you should just be with your child a hundred percent of the time and not ever let another caregiver take care of your child that you trust. That is actually completely against what we’ve evolved to be, which is to raise children in community.
Speaker 1: (08:44)
I love that you said that because so many parents are isolated and exhausted and overloaded and angry and frustrated and resentful because they’ve sort of absorbed this concept that they’re supposed to be able to do it on their own or just the two of them. And I so deeply believe that children benefit from multiple healthy attachments. So thank you for, I mean you’ve got a very exhibit response from me, right?
Speaker 2: (09:12)
Yeah. Which is great because it is, you do get a message, of course you want to do the best you can for your kid. And if you get the message the best you can for your kid, if you’re a mom is be the only one who cares for you, then you’re just trying to do the best you can for them. And that is an absolutely false statement. And, and if you want to read the signs of this as a beautiful, um, researcher named Sarah Hrdy, h r d y is an anthropologist to, um, wrote a beautiful book on a number of books, but the one particular to look towards is called mothers and others.
Speaker 1: (09:49)
Speaker 2: (09:49)
you know, and it’s, it’s basically it’s the science of Ella parenting and aloe parenting isn’t just like a little trend or something like that. It actually shaped our entire evolution in ways we don’t need to talk about now. But, but you know, it means that when we talk about attachment and these basic principles, we’ll come to now that it’s about the child’s relationship to a particular caregiver, not just one caregiver, like the mother for example, or the father. It’s individualized to each caregiver. So the way you develop security, and this is now the next take home principle, which is secure attachment, um, especially with the caregiver with whom the child spending the most time called the primary caregiver with the research shows is that if you have secure attachment with your primary caregiver, you’re going to be all those positive things. I said flexible, insightful.
Speaker 2: (10:43)
You’re going to have a sense of vitality. You’ll have a kind of coherent sense of yourself, meaning it holds well together, the face of stress, which is called resilience. Um, it doesn’t guarantee things, but it makes it more likely that these things are going to happen. So security is the best gift we can give our attachment relationship. And I’ll give you the three s’s that you can remember that build the fourth s security. So the first of these principles that have found across all these research studies across all these different cultures is the word seen, s e n seen. And what that means is that when a parent, let’s say, but it could be other caregivers too, but I’ll just use the word parent. When a parent looks to the inner experience of the child that is underlying their behavior. So their feelings, the meaning of something, uh, the memory that might’ve been evoked when a certain behavior came out in a child.
Speaker 2: (11:47)
So memory, feelings, um, meanings. Those are all what you would call the mind. And so as you mentioned, you have this word mindsight that I use is the idea that parents who see the site part, the mind, the subjective inner experience of the child beneath their behavior, those are parents who are going to have a child more likely to develop security than a parent, for example, who only responds to behaviors, right? So, you know, Peter Fon and d who I was just with in, in England, um, has some beautiful research on, um, on, um, what he calls metalization and reflective function. A beautiful way of actually studying this capacity to sense the mind of the child.
Speaker 1: (12:36)
And when you say mind just in my Lang my use of language, I would include it and you can tell me if this it fits or not. Uh, the heart meaning the whole sort of being of the child who can feel seen and understood in a deeper way when the parent looks beyond just the outward manifestation or behavior.
Speaker 2: (12:58)
Yeah. So if you take the term subjective experience, okay. Um, and then address your question. Okay. This child has something in their heart or their gut, right. Or, or anywhere in there inside their body that you may not be able to see overtly with your eyes as an outsider. Um, but as the subjective inner experience of child that falls under the general term mind. Am I empty? It is nothing intellect. I never, ever, ever say mind versus heart. It would be a logical and really thinking about this broader view of the mind. So, so when you say what is the heartfelt sense, what’s the feeling of my child? That’s the mind. Great. Yeah, those are good.
Speaker 1: (13:44)
Clarify. I’m glad that that, thank you for clarifying that.
Speaker 2: (13:47)
Yeah. And, and it’s important because like when I went to medical school, people ignored subjective experience of patients where the students, one time I was crying and one of my teachers said, there’s no time for tears. You’re, you’re a doctor. You know, it’s like what? You know. So anyway, so that’s where, that’s when I dropped out of school and I had this word mindsight fortunately, so I could protect myself from, from nutcases like that who say that your feelings are not real
Speaker 1: (14:14)
and this makes children so open. And you know, I love that you begin with seen because when a child or an adult or, you know, I know speaking from my experience, when I feel seen, there’s an immediate sense of relaxation and connection and closeness and safety and all those good things. So I, I love that. That’s where you begin and then you have more ss, right?
Speaker 2: (14:38)
Yeah. Well they said exactly right. And you feel felt when you’re seeing like that. And the second thing you know, is that, um, you’re soothed the second pass. Someone is really, uh, tuning into you like that and you’re distressed. They know they can take in your hitter experience, the suffering, the distress, the fear, the anger, whatever’s creating discomfort in you. They then can in their own way the parent. Um, consider what to do to reduce that stress and then take action to soothe you. So those repeated experiences of big suits, you know, lead to we believe the baby’s own brain learning to do inner soothing. And I, I you, I’m going to try to avoid the word self-soothing or self compassion or self this or self that because I actually deeply believe one of the biggest hidden toxicities of, of modern culture is the use of the word self to mean just your body, you know, go, I know like for example, Kristin Neff I know has spoken for you and I love her work and the stuff she does with Chris Germer but I’m saying self-compassion means you’re othering.
Speaker 2: (16:00)
Got It. Right. And so you know what goes on inside of your body, Susan, what goes on on my side of my body are part of one flowing wholeness. And you know, if we want to do qualifiers, like there’s a Dan inner self and as Susan in herself, that’s great, but you’re not separate from my inter self. You know? And I think we need to raise the next generation to realize that the mind who they are, their identity, the self, if you will, is both within them and in their interconnections with other people and the planet, right? That there’s an intra nature identity that’s filled with love and belonging. And if we don’t have the next generation come to realize that the word self, s e l f actually refers to both the inner experience and the Inter, I call it a Mi plus a, we bring them together as we, right.
Speaker 2: (16:57)
You know, we need to, we need to raise the next generation. So we stopped othering the trees around us. The trees around us are us. And so that’s why you hear me say weird words like we are weird things like, I’ll call it inner compassion rather than self compassion or call it inter compassionate rather than other focus compassion. The word other drives me nuts. And, and I know it’s subtle cause we say oh love self and other and that’s seems fine. But no, let’s see. I think one way around this is to say do some inner care and do some intercare right? And just leave it like that because the self word is getting us into a lot of trouble. So that’s the soothing thing is that you have an inner soothing and an interesting thing that happens. And then the third s is safe and safe refers to two things that refers to the caregiver, the attachment figure, the parent, you know, protecting the child.
Speaker 2: (18:02)
But in addition to that, not being the source of terror, um, and of course anyone listening to this can freak out cause a lot of us as parents can terrorize our children unintentionally. Yeah. So the key thing that we’ll say very quickly here is repair, repair, repair. That no one gets it, right. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. We don’t always see our child, we just respond to behavior. We don’t always soothe our children. Sometimes we’re distracted and we don’t realize they’re even suffering or we’re not effective. In our attempt to help or we don’t always keep our children safe. Sometimes they get hurt under our supervision and sometimes we can even do things that are confusing to them and sometimes even terrifying to them. So while we can’t get all those three s’s right all the time, we can have the intention with what you beautifully write about presence to be present for the time.
Speaker 2: (19:00)
When we don’t connect in these three s’s, make a repair because we’re awake and we are aware and we intentionally say, you know something, I think I didn’t see you that time. You know something I didn’t realize yourself and you know something I may have scared you so that when you make a repair, you’re doing a couple things. Obviously you’re reestablishing those three assets that you missed. That’s important. But in addition to the reestablishment of those, you’re also a role model. Yeah. That no one ever gets it perfectly right. And we can still have the directionality, the kind of conscious parenting that has a purpose to it, which is to establish these three s’s. So when a child has repair, then they developed security, they go, you know, something. Nobody ever gets it all right. I’ve learned from my mom, I’ve learned from my dad. I’ve learned from them that when you realize you kind of goofed up, you don’t just keep on going. You take a break and you say, I think I goofed up. I’m sorry. Let’s try it again so I can really see you soothe you and keep you safe.
Speaker 1: (20:12)
What a beautiful, beautiful summary of something that’s so deep and warrants study and reflection and learning and growth. But it’s a beautiful launching place. So as you’re listening to this, everyone, I hope that you can reflect on in particular the last thing that Dan said, which is nobody gets it right? We’re all just doing what we can to grow through the experience of parenting as we heal from or incorporate in whatever we learned growing up. And Dan, thank you for summarizing incentive’s simple way. Those four s’s. Scene, safe, sooth, which help us raise children who with an attachment that is secure. Did I get that right?
Speaker 2: (20:59)
Exactly. And you know, and the, the parenting from the inside out approach teaches you how to do this inside of yourself. And I just finished a book with Tina paper. I sent my a colleague and co-writer, you know, called the power of showing up, which kind of reviews this and extends it to you know, these s’s and really looks in depth that um, how you can actually apply these ss, make repairs when there’s a rupture and really bring the gift that keeps on giving security is this beautiful gift that we actually are empowered with presence to give to our children and raise the next generation to not, um, be, um, fill with fragility but rather have an inner resilience and also build this movie identity, which I think is exactly what we, we as parents need to do for the next generation.
Speaker 1: (21:52)
Yeah. We were talking before we began recording about our kids and you know, we both have kids and are in their twenties and what joy and and, and sweetness it is to see them showing up in the world with, with inspiration to us and, and helping the next generation coming up behind them, which all of you are doing as you listened to this podcast as you raise children. So Dan, thank you. Thank you for the work that you’re doing, the heart and soul that you bring to everything you put out into the world, the intention and love behind it. Do you have a tip that we can leave parents with? Because in each episode I try and inspire parents or give them something that they can just pay a little extra attention to in the week ahead.
Speaker 2: (22:39)
Yeah, I think just realize that your presence is really the key to bringing these three s’s into the front of an experience with your child and, and then to help them develop security with you. And so it’s an ongoing journey to learn to be present in life and, and so that’s what I would suggest you can work on this week. And uh, I’m sure Susan will guide you in next steps to deepen your experience of parenting.
Speaker 1: (23:07)
That’s why I wrote parenting with presence. It’s the foundation of everything. So thank you and I hope you’ve all enjoyed our conversation. I sure have. It’s, it’s just such a soothing experience, Dan, to sit and get quiet and take in what you’re saying, not just the words but the, the feeling behind it. So thank you again.
Speaker 2: (23:28)
My pleasure. Thank you Susan for all the great work you’re doing,
Speaker 1: (23:31)
everyone. I encourage you, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, subscribe to the podcast or you might want to leave a rating or review that’s really appreciated. And if you have a question that you would like me to answer, please visit Susan stifelman.com/to find out more about my monthly membership program. You can visit Susan sillman.com and click help for parents. And if you want to hear full interviews from wonderful guests like Dr Dan Siegel in summit site grazing, tweens and teens, or parenting in the digital age, please visit Susan stifelman.com and Dan, how can people find out more about what you’re up to?
Speaker 2: (24:08)
You know, we have a lot of resources available to email@example.com d r d a n s, I e g e l.com. Um, lots of stuff to do. We have awareness courses, all sorts of things come join us there.
Speaker 1: (24:22)
Yes, it’s a Cornucopia of, of enlightening support. So everybody, thank you. Thank you again, Dan, and I look forward to joining all of you on our next episode. Meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy and appreciation, and I’ll see you next time. Okay.