Daniel Siegel, M.D. is a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and the author of six parenting books. His latest, The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired, relates to parent-child attachment and how focusing on the four S’s of attachment—safe, seen, soothed, secure—can help parents optimize child development. Your Teen spoke with Siegel to get the low-down on the four S’s. Especially in stressful times like these, connection with our kids is the foundation of resilience.
Q: Can you explain how the four S’s apply to parents of teenagers?
Siegel: The four S’s apply throughout the lifespan. The first “S” is Safety, which is two components. Of course, one is protecting your child. When the child is an adolescent this becomes especially challenging because their task is to go out and try new things and take risks when your drive is to keep them safe. So that’s a real conflict there.
The other aspect of keeping them safe is to avoid being a source of terror for your kids. When the caregiver, the attachment figure, is the source of terror, there’s a biological paradox set up because one system in the brain says, Oh, I’m terrified. I should go to my attachment figure to be protected. The other system is a little deeper in the brain, and it says, Oh, I’m being terrified. I should get away from the source of terror. So if the parent is the source of terror, it’s unresolvable, and it leads to something called disorganized attachment.
Q: And when you talk about the parent being the terror, is that only in an abusive environment or can that be in a more loving environment as well?
Siegel: That’s a really great question. Can this disorganizing attachment arise even when there isn’t developmental trauma of abuse and neglect? The answer is absolutely, yes. A parent comes home and is screaming at the top of their lungs because they’re so frustrated with work and they’re out of control—even if they’re not abusing the child, that can be terrifying for the child.
Q: Do you believe that at some point most of us will engage in some of that behavior?
Siegel: Totally. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. The key thing is that relationships are messy, and it’s the repair process that is so important. Not—“Did you do it perfectly?” It’s—”Do you make a reconnection and repair after a disconnection?”
Q: We covered the first S for Safe. The next one is Seen. What does that mean?
Siegel: This means you try to sense the mental life beneath behavior. So, if an adolescent comes home and is really upset about school and throws her backpack down on the floor, here’s an example of not seeing your kid and instead responding to the behavior: “Don’t throw your backpack on the floor like that.”
Instead, when the backpack gets thrown, you begin to wonder what your teenager was experiencing that led to throwing the backpack. You could approach her and just say, “Sweetie, how was your day? It looks like it may have been a hard day.”
Or as you get into it, you might say, “I wonder if you’re feeling really frustrated or did something really upsetting happen?”
Just like that. Frustrated, upsetting, hard day. All those things relate to the mental experience beneath the behavior throwing the backpack.
Q: Can you show your teenager that they are seen by not reacting?
Siegel: Yes. There are times to communicate with words, and there are times just to say, “Hey, welcome home. I’m in the den. I’m here if you want to talk.” You’re showing, I heard the backpack go down. I imagine there’s some distressing feelings. I’m here, but I’m not in your face saying, “What’s going on with you? How are you feeling? What happened today?”
Q: You’ve now described Safe and Seen. Tell us about the third one: Soothed.
Siegel: Soothing is how you tune in when the adolescent comes to you after you say, “I’m here if you want to talk.” She comes to you, and she’s crying. Here’s what you say: “Sweetie, tell me what’s going on.” Or, “Wow, it sounds like it’s a hard day.” It’s an invitation to join you, not to get your judgment about her tears.
Let’s say that your daughter auditioned but didn’t get the part. You could say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. That’s just a stupid play anyway. It means nothing, right?” You want your daughter not to make such a big deal of the audition, but what you’re doing is you’re obliterating the reality that it mattered to her. She feels bad that she didn’t get the audition. So you’re actually insulting her by just saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” Even though your intention was good.
Connecting would be about saying, “Tell me how you feel. I want to know what’s going on.” The first thing is to be present without giving a lecture, just to hear.
From my experience with adolescents, it really needs to be like that because if you start shoving your opinion on an adolescent, they’re just going to push back and do the opposite. You want to let the questions come from them for the most part. You want her to develop the skills of self-reflection so she can develop an internal compass that will drive her in the way she needs to go.
So my goal at that moment is not to teach you or tell you that you were wrong. It’s just to soothe. And they get soothed because they know when they come to you with something really distressing, you’re not going to lecture them. You’re just going to be there for them literally. You’re right there.
Q: The final S is Secure. What’s that one about?
Siegel: Security is all about emotional resilience. A kid who has experienced Safe, Seen, and Soothed will feel Secure. Secure means I have flexibility in how I think, and I have grit. When things get tough, I can keep on trying it a different way, like with the audition thing. And this is how you develop resilience. You develop emotional intelligence and social intelligence. All of that is about secure attachment.