This month, my guest is a very appreciated parenting expert, who – together with Daniel Siegel Ph.D – published a lot of successful books, translated in Romanian language too. Tina Payne Bryson is psychotherapist and she coordinates The Center of Connection and The Play Strong Institute. She is, also, passionate about interpersonal relationships and about the way human brain develops. More information about her clinical work, available on: www.tinabryson.com.
Gáspár: Dear Tina, I am excited and honoured that you accepted to have this authentic conversation with me, here, on paginadepsihologie.ro platform. Since I have read No Drama Discipline (the book written by you and Daniel Siegel), I became a fan of your parenting approach. Then, I was lucky enough to meet Dan in Romania, after he accepted the invitation to visit us. Fortunately, a year later, you arrived here – thanks to the efforts of my colleagues, Nora Neghină and Oana Calnegru. And now, here we are ready to begin our #EpicTalk. I am sure this discussion will be extremely useful for many of our readers.
Considering the entire planet is facing a high level of collective anxiety and vulnerability, I would ask… How do you succeed, in confronting your own difficult emotions? And how did you experience every aspect of this pandemic, in your family? I admit, for me, these weeks of isolation and social distancing brought to light every possible and impossible sensation, emotion and feeling. In some days, my adrenalin was so high; in others, I was quite proud of how I managed the whole situation.
Tina Payne Bryson: I have had to be curious and learn in this moment what delights me, what makes me feel safe, knowing that it might be different right now. For instance, typically having information makes me feel safe, but if I’m consuming too much information, I feel overwhelmed and not safe, so I’ve had to adjust my typical approaches. In our family, we have cultivated joy, connection, grace, play, and time outside. We’ve all seen that too much screen time makes us unhappy, and that time outside and having exercise makes that better.
Gáspár: If I correctly remember from our previous talks, you and your husband have three boys. So, before everything else, I would be grateful if you would tell us about some challenges you faced regarding your sons, in these time of uncertainty. I know itʼs someway personal, but I know how important is to normalize some phenomena and symptoms, especially when itʼs about us, the people who work with the mind, the emotions and the behavior of other people.
Tina Payne Bryson: This depends so much on the individual personality of your children. One of my sons is very social and being away from friends has been really hard. One of my sons is a young adult used to being totally independent and living in another state, and moving back home has had unique challenges.
Gáspár: As it happens in every situation of major stress, anxiety makes some of us to be over-functioning (or – as you and Dan say – we get close to rigidity), while others fall in sub-functioning (closing to chaos). Which strategies are proper to create some flexibility in our minds, especially when interacting with children or when we know they watch us (seeing how hard is for us), and, consequently, we wish to offer them a smart pattern for managing stress and anxiety?
Tina Payne Bryson: There are things that we know cultivate wellness, and when our nervous systems are reacting to a threat, we need to be intentional about soothing our stress states. Exercise, connection with others, mindfulness, deep breathing, spending time in nature, getting enough sleep, being playful, laughing, and things such as these are even more important. Self-care is actually survival-related.
Gáspár: All these changes in our lives, caused by COVID-19, fundamentally impacted the academic activity of children, on a daily basis. Since you are a specialist in parenting and a psychotherapist with an extensive experience with families… What impact do you think these changes will have on academic route and performance of a child? Is it now the case for the parents to become worried? Or the brain of a child has enough resources (through affection and empathy from his caregivers) to be secured of traumas, shocks and bad consequences?
Tina Payne Bryson: It depends on the child and their age. All kids have had school change dramatically and schools will have to catch students up. We are not going to have an academic crisis. All students will be shifting together. What history and science tells us is that kids who go through traumatic events (like WW2), need their parents. That being with parents provides a protective factor, even when there is trauma. The children who were sent away from their parents to get away from the trauma of war fared far worse than the children who stayed where the war was happening, but who were with their parents. If parents are helping their children by nurturing them and creating a safe haven for them, that will help them be resilient.
Gáspár: My therapeutic experience demonstrated me that people need to normalize their feelings, to validate their experiences and, then, to get some strategies for managing their relationships. Which would be the most prominent advice you could offer to those parents whose children lived and still live all the changes and uncertainties in academic activity?
Tina Payne Bryson: Parents, what your kids need most from you is YOU. When your child is sad, angry, anxious, or disappointed, or any other negative emotion, you don’t have to fix it or argue with them to tell them to feel differently. What they need most is for you to be present in that moment, to be the calm in their storm and to help them feel safe and seen. You can say „You’re really missing your friends, and you feel sad. Yes, that’s sad when we can’t see our friends. I’m right here with you and I will listen and be here while you’re sad. It’s OK to feel sad. I’m here.“
Gáspár: I know you (as many other professionals in this area) strongly believe in the power of relationships and connections between human beings. How did it change, in time, your vision on parent-child connection? Here, I am talking about the ideas in your new book, The Power of Showing Up (which seems wonderful to me).
Tina Payne Bryson: 50 years of cross-cultural research shows us that one of the best predictors for how children turn out is that they have secure attachment with at least one person. The way we can help our children have secure attachment with us is to help them feel:
- Safe: Protecting them from hard and not being the source of their fear, which means not hurting them or yelling at them, fighting in disrespectful ways with other adults in front of them. And that when we do yell or lose our temper, that we make a repair with them „I’m sorry I yelled. I wish I had done that differently. Will you forgive me?“
- Seen: Seeing the mind behind the behavior, tuning into the feelings instead of just the behavior, so that they feel known and understood.
- Soothed: Comforting them, soothing them, nurturing them when they’re upset or having a hard time.
- Secure: This is when, not perfectly, but consistently enough, kids feel safe, seen, and soothed and their brains wire to know securely that if they have a need, someone will see it and respond to their need and show up for them.
Gáspár: In Romania, as in many other countries with a problematic economy, the parents look less carefully to emotional and relational intelligence. The most of the families still consider cognitive intelligence to be essential for a long-term success. How do you think we could help these parents to understand that the most important predictor for both, a future psychological and biological wellbeing, and success in life is the quality of our relationships (meaning we previously acquired emotional and relational intelligence)?
Tina Payne Bryson: The prefrontal cortex is where the capacity for cognitive and academic success lies. So for our children to be successful economically and academically and professionally, they need a strong well-developed prefrontal cortex. What is surprising for many people is that the prefrontal cortex is developed by social, emotional, and relational attention. Building empathy, flexibility, regulation, mental health, also develops the brain to be able to have success.
Gáspár: It says every crisis of humanity comes with a lot of hazards and opportunities. So, it depends on our conscious presence to accept the reality and build some personal advantages. Thatʼs why I am asking you… What lessons do you think we could learn from this global crisis? And which would be the opportunities now?
Tina Payne Bryson: We learn that connection to each other is what makes us happiest. We need each other. Globally, we are all vulnerable and we’re all strong. At the end, what we all prize most is our connections and our family. What we do isn’t as important as who we are together. Now we need to care for each other, find what is common for all of us, protect our world and care for each other. Many people are finding that the slower time to reconnect with family and be less busy is what we’ve needed for a long time.
Gáspár: Regarding the conscious presence, I know the parenting approach you promote with Daniel Siegel includes mindfulness. Which would be the benefits of those parents who make efforts to be mindful and what positive changes could we observe in the lives of those children who grow up in a family accustomed to conscious presence?
Tina Payne Bryson: When children have parents who teach kids to be mindful and to use their minds to regulate emotions and that they don’t have to be victims of their emotions or circumstances, they are much more resilient because they have learned the skills they need to handle their lives well. Kids will learn to experience difficult emotions (instead of running from them or getting stuck in them), to be present to those feelings with enough support from their parents to be able to tolerate them, and when they do, they learn they can handle difficult things with resilience.
Gáspár: Dear Tina, we are now at the end of our conversation. Thank you very much for your patience, availability and all the information you gave us. #EpicTalk tradition is that the last question to be addressed by my guest. So, Tina, what would be the question I could answer, as a clinician psychologist and relational therapist?
Tina Payne Bryson: How can we use relational approaches to reduce stress and build resilience in our homes? What tips from relational psychology can be used by parents during the pandemic and lock downs?
Gáspár: Thank you for your question. My clinical and personal experience shows me that nothing dissolves stress and anxiety better than a relationship based on safety and trust. The intimate and structured conversations – as the conscious dialogue in Imago Therapy – helps us to put into words what happens inside us and to receive mirroring, validation and empathy from our listener.
I believe that both, in a pandemic and in many other moments of crisis, parents can offer to the child a real help, if they open their mind and hearts, to see the child’s concerns and fears . The clinical work and the science show us that – when the parents answer through (1) mirroring (repeating the message of the child and using as much as possible his words); (2) validation (admitting the view of the child is logical); and (3) empathy (accentuating the emotions of the child and normalizing their sense and role) – the child has the chance to feel #The PowerOfRelationships, to better handle anxiety, to find his resilience and to strengthen his trust in his parent. And if we use John Gottmanʼs approach, the pattern is similar (just slightly less structured). Here, the parent also has the responsibility to accept all the emotions of the child, considering they are opportunities of growth and development. And only after the emotions are well received, the parent may appeal to a sort of restructuration of the childʼs thoughts or he may discuss other possible alternatives, in helping the child to see the situation from different angles.