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Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Parenting in a Pandemic

Crofton House School and the CHS Parents’ Auxiliary hosted parents, alumnae, staff and guests from KidsSafe and Kerrisdale Annex School at a virtual event with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson—a parenting expert, best-selling author, psychotherapist and founder of the Center For Connection.

Well-attended, and with lots of engagement in the Q&A session, the topic “Parenting in a Pandemic” was welcome and timely; Dr. Payne Bryson helped the audience understand some practical strategies to help parents in these extraordinary times, pulling from her latest and fourth book with Dr. Dan Siegel: The Power Of Showing Up. The book shows how a quality of presence can help children on their way to happiness, academic success, leadership skills, and meaningful relationships. “The book came out before the pandemic hit, and when COVID-19 arrived, I was flooded with questions about how to make sure the kids are okay and how to get them through this without a lot of damage,” said Dr. Payne Bryson. “The answer is in the book, and it’s based on 50 years of cross-cultural research. The best predictor for how well children turn out is that they have secure attachment with at least one person, ideally a caregiver or parent.” But how do we provide secure attachment in tough moments? In response, her presentation followed their concept of the “4 S’s”: 

The first of the S’s is the most important. We want to create a secure base from which our kids can explore. Think about making yourself and your home a safe harbor. The world will toss them around on seas of uncertainty, but with you and in your home, there is calm. One way you can do that is by introducing predictability. Try a morning playlist, or a special games and pizza night on the same evening each week. And if you become unpredictable (we’re human, it’s normal if we sometimes flip our lids), it’s important that you repair and apologize with your kids as soon as you have calmed down. Having a sense that you will apologize is also a form of predictability and shows our kids that they can overcome the messiness and discomfort that comes with close relationships. 

The second S is about looking at the mind behind the behaviour. What is your child’s internal experience? Focus on that, and respond in ways that match, remembering always that telling kids not to feel (e.g. “don’t cry!”) doesn’t help. By naming what they are feeling (and what you are seeing), it helps reduce the reactivity in their brain. Try phrases like, “It seems like …” and asking, “Is that right?” And remember: tuning in doesn’t mean you become permissive. Boundaries and rules help make children feel safe. You can say ‘no’ to the behaviour and still say ‘yes’ to their emotional experience. 

The third S is how it sounds: comfort, and connection. Before the brain is receptive to learning from what’s happened, it needs to be comforted and calm. From there, parents and caregivers can address the behaviours in questions. “Keep in mind that attachment science tells us that when we are at our worst, no matter what age, that is when we most need connection,” said Dr. Payne Bryson. Try physical comforts, like hugs, or wrapping a towel around a kid after bath time. Offer a snack, or a safe place to cry. The key phrase and feeling you want to impart is, “I’m right here with you. I’m with you while you feel it.” Resilience comes from being supported while we deal with difficult emotional situations. 

The final S builds on the three before it. When your brain wires to know that, based on your repeated experiences, you can expect to be safe, seen, and soothed (even imperfectly), what’s how you get to “secure.” A child has a sense that their grownup is going to see the threat or distress, and respond to it. The beauty of the 4 S’s is that when we model them for our kids by showing up for them, they are also learning to show up for themselves. They learn to keep themselves safe, because they’ve seen you do it. That’s why the 4 S’s are always the right thing to do, and it gets easier the more you practice it. 

“You don’t have to be perfect, just be present; what your kid needs most from you, is you— flawed, imperfect, trying-your-best you,” said Dr. Bryson. “History isn’t destiny in terms of how our parents raised us, or even in how we’ve been parenting so far. Because our brain wiring with respect to attachment is based on repeated experiences, when we provide the good ones, our children’s brains begin to change right away. We really can influence how our children develop just based on the experiences we provide.” She shared that even the most attuned parents are only mastering the “4 S’s” about 30 percent of the time. It is just as important that we show up for ourselves as for our kids, and that means having compassion for ourselves as we learn and grow on our parenting and caregiving journey. 

Thank you to the CHS Parents’ Auxiliary for joining us in presenting an informative, reassuring evening to help us continue doing the best we can taking care of our children—and ourselves—through these times, and all times. 

Tina Payne Bryson shared a message of thanks and links to further reading for anyone who would like to learn more about attachment and parenting. Her presentation to our CHS community, “Parenting in a Pandemic” is available for review until Wednesday, July 7. Throughout her presentation, she shared more resources for anyone who would like to learn more. They are: 

  • The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears, by Lawrence J. Cohen 
  • Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel
  • The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction, by Christine Carter PhD 
  • Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers
  • Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, by Devorah Heitner
  • The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, by William Stixrud, PhD, and Ned Johnson