Welcome to a new decade, a new column for Savvy Source, and possibly a new way of approaching parenting. In this series of brief discussions, I'd like to invite you to join with me in an informal yet hopefully informative conversation about what it means to be a parent. We'll be exploring practical tips about how to make caring for your children based on the latest science and filled with accessible easy-to-master approaches to what you can do in your day-to-day life as a parent.
In this first conversation, we're going to look at something I call "mindsight," which is the ability to see and shape the inner world of the mind. It turns out that we have two very different lenses with which we see the world. One is the lens of seeing the outside world; the other is the way we see our inner life of feelings, thoughts, memories and perceptions. Naturally we all have an inner world of mental activities, such as the aforementioned familiar aspects of the mind, but the mindsight lens gives us the ability to sense these thoughts and feelings and not be taken over by them-it lets us see our thoughts and feelings as one aspect of who we are, not the totality of our identity. Mindsight is the way we can know our own and others' inner worlds in a way that helps us have insight and inner resilience plus empathy and interpersonal skills. Mindsight is the mechanism beneath emotional and social intelligence.
As parents, knowing the inner world of ourselves has been demonstrated in various studies to be the most powerful predictor of how our children will become attached to us. This "attachment" of kids to their caregivers, in turn, has been shown to predict positive outcomes in social, emotional, cognitive, and moral development. Children who are securely attached to their caregivers are given the basics for thriving in life. In my own work as a therapist, in my life as a parent, and in my writings as an educator, this finding that a parent's own self-understanding is the best predictor of the child's attachment has changed my life. In psychotherapy, I have been able to explore new ways of understanding life's major and minor challenges and been able to use this new view in changing the unhelpful ways people may have become stuck or explosive, rigid or chaotic. As a parent, knowing the science behind how I can understand my own development and how it impacts my children has directly shaped my way of raising them. And in the field of teaching parents and therapists, looking deeply into the ways that mindsight helps promote something called "integration" has changed my understanding of health and our close personal relationships.
Integration is simply the way separate elements of a system -- like your relationship with your partner or other members of the family -- are allowed to be unique and specialized in what they are and then being encouraged to connect, to link together. Integration is what allows a family to function in harmony. Think of times when, in your own childhood, you may not have been allowed to express your individual preferences, to explore who you were as a unique person. How has that impacted your growth and your sense of openness to others in your family? For others, family life may have been filled with separation and not much connection: people could become whomever or do whatever they wanted, but connection was absent. In both situations, there isn't a balance in the differentiation and the linkage aspects of integration. Here is the key: When we are not allowed to differentiate (become an individual) and then to link (to connect through supportive and open communication) then things don't go so well. And it is important to realize that when we are not integrated-as a family, as a couple, or even within our own nervous system as an individual person-then life moves away from ease and flexibility and becomes full of chaos or rigidity.
It turns out that secure attachment appears to be associated with the healthy growth of the important "prefrontal" areas of the brain that are responsible for how we balance our emotions, focus our attention, and deal effectively with stress. These are integrative areas of the brain that link widely separated and differentiated regions of the nervous system to one another. In this way, healthy integrative communication (supporting and exploring uniqueness while also encouraging compassionate connection) also leads to the growth of these integrative regions of the brain. This amazing view helps us as parents to see the larger picture of using our conversations with our children to stimulate the very integrative fibers of their brains that will give them resilience and the capacity to reflect and create rewarding relationships in their own lives.
Mindsight is the perceptual skill that enables us to see when integration is not present and move our lives beyond the chaos of tumultuous outbursts of emotion, beyond the flooding of painful memories from the past, beyond the rigid, inflexible habits of repetitive thoughts, or beyond the destructive behaviors that each may keep us from living the life we want. In our own childhood, we may not have been given the integrative relational experiences with our parents or others to develop mindsight well in our lives. Don't worry! As we'll see in this series, mindsight is a skill that can be developed throughout one's life. We can actually promote the integrative growth of our brains by focusing our minds in new and learnable ways. And when we take the time to develop this foundation of our own emotional and social intelligence, then we are in a position to offer this to our own children. Mindsight is a win-win-win situation; as we bring more clarity and compassion into our own lives and our children's lives, the world in which we all connected gets a little brighter as well. Why not start now?
You can read more of Dr. Siegel's work at the Mindsight Institute website.
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