Parenting from the Inside Out

ParentingFromInside_LGIt has been ten years since Parenting from the Inside Out was published. The book has been a smashing success for many parents and a critical book for parent educators. The authors published a new edition, with a new preface and updated references. The science has evolved since the initial publication. Even so, the ideas of the first edition still hold strong. We have more information, which has confirmed the original findings.

Parenting from the Inside Out begins with the extraordinary and hope giving finding that our past does not determine us. The way we parent is not fixed by the parenting we received. Whatever we have inherited from our parents, whatever they taught us, either by telling us or by the example they set, it does not have to determine how we raise our own children.

It is the manner in which we make sense of our past that gives us the freedom to choose our own parenting style, the coherent narrative we develop about our past, the reflection upon the events of our lives. This is a critical finding that weaves through the entire book.

That our coherent narrative is so critical has everything to do with the fact that our brains are shaped by experience, not by genetics. It is the interaction with our environment that shapes us. Experience is biology. The building block of our brains are the neurons and the way our brain functions depends on the many ways in which these neurons grow and are interconnected. These connections are the structure of the brain and they are formed by our experience. Our brain changes during our lifetime.

Our response to our experience is called memory. We have several forms of memory. Implicit and explicit memory behave very differently.

Implicit memory is non-verbal. It is present at birth and continues throughout our lives. It is critical in forming those parts of the brain that generate emotions, automatic behavioral responses and the encoding of bodily sensations. The formation of implicit memory takes places without our conscious awareness in a nonverbal, or pre-verbal manner.

In other words, you don’t have a sense that you remember something. But you do and you respond to a given situation on the basis of this implicit memory.

Explicit memory is that kind of memory of which we can say “I remember.” Even if it is vague, we have an awareness of remembering. Explicit memory begins to form after our first birthday, when a part of the brain known as the hippocampus begins to develop. The first kind of explicit memory that develops is called semantic memory and the second is autobiographical. Autobiographical memory involves a sense of self, time and place, in other words, identity. By age two or so, we begin to have such memory, when the prefrontal cortex develops far enough.

The prefrontal cortex is a unique part of our brain, because that is where five different parts of our experience are integrated. This integration is critical to the development of autobiographical memory. These five parts of our experience are

  1. our neocortex (cognitive brain),
  2. the limbic system in our brain,
  3. the brain stem,
  4. the body, and
  5. the environment.

For a healthy development of the prefrontal cortex, it appears, we need secure attachment. Without relationships, this part of the brain cannot develop at all. In other words, we can only develop a sense of self through time, by using autobiographical memory, in the context of relationships. Never in isolation.

If there is one word that I would use to highlight the work of Siegel and Hartzell, it is integration. Integration is what we are after. Integration is the sign of healthy development, the sign of a healthy brain and a healthy child. If the prefrontal cortex is so important to achieve integration, what are the things parents can do to help their kids. Before I go into that though, let me say there is a lot more compelling brain science that they explain in this book, the integration of the three tiers of the brain and the two hemispheres, all of which can work together for a coherent sense of life.

The first process to achieve integration that Siegel and Hartzell describe is that of story telling. Stories are really our way to make sense of our lives, a way to connect the various pieces of our experience and put them together in one narrative that combines feelings, understanding, perspective and a sense of self and others. Helping your kids tell the story of their experience is tremendously helpful, and
at first we help them by telling stories ourselves. In those stories we put together the inner experience of our child with the events that created them, in as far as we can of course.

Of course, to do this well, it is helpful to be able to narrate our own life stories well. This is why the authors begin their book by stating that it is not our experience that makes us good or less effective parents. The ways in which we have learned to make sense of our experience is what matters. The stronger our own sense of integration, the more we can help our children achieve theirs.

But story telling is only part of the picture. It is through sharing our emotions that we become truly connected to each other. Emotions are our internal process of determining what is important in our lives. We respond to internal or external stimuli and get a sense that we need to pay attention. Now! Next comes an immediate appraisal of that which we need to pay attention to which in turn makes us respond. From a brain’s perspective, emotions and meaning making are created by the same processes.

We can help our children “feel felt” by tuning into their emotions. Again, we can best do this when these emotions don’t take us on a roller coaster ride of our own—we are then no longer connected. When we can tune into our child’s feelings with clarity though, we create a sense of resonance within each other. This resonance doesn’t stop when we are no longer in each other’s presence.

Resonance continues and is in a real way a joining of the minds, a joining that lives on. To feel this from a parent, to feel that you exist within the mind of the parent is tremendously gratifying for the child and, again, stimulates their own sense of integration and autonomous self-regulation. In other words, a child will not be an autonomous individual without connection.

The quality of having insight in the working of your own mind is called mindsight. When you can articulate your own internal world, you have mindsight. And it appears that parents who have mindsight appear to have children who also have a coherence of mind. And for Siegel and Hartzell, coherence of mind is what makes a child thrive.

One critical element in achieving mindsight within our children is the way in which we communicate. Parental communication needs
to be contingent in order to help our kids thrive. Contingent communication has a reciprocal give and take. Our responses are proportional to what the child offers. The child feels heard, seen, understood, and appreciated.

Listening is at the heart of this form of communication. We listen for what our child offers, not to whatever emotional bomb has gone off in our minds. We can then respond appropriately and help our kids feel felt. Contingent communication literally creates your child’s identity. That is to say, your response to your child changes them—remember, experience is biology. The now changed child has a new identity and your response is in there. If the parent’s response was in accord with the signals of the child, they feel felt and interpersonal contingency creates internal coherence.

These are the building blocks upon which we parent from the inside out.

Healing is always possible and has everything to do with achieving integration in our minds. The more we have an integrated sense of being, the more support we can offer our children. It is not our experience, but the integration of our experience that helps us do this well. A happy childhood without reflection does not necessarily lead to supportive parenting. Hardships in early life that are well understood and coherently narrated can provide a wonderful basis for parenting.

The more coherently we can tell our life story, the more clearly we can offer a secure attachment to and for our children.

Finally a word of critique. It is very clear from the theoretical portions of the book that healing happens not in isolation but in relationships. That is entirely true for children, but not less so for adults. We can become more equipped to work on ourselves autonomously, but really, connection is our best healing modality. Of all the wonderful advice that this book gives to parents, it does not contain a prompt to seek connection for yourself. Journaling, of course. Taking deep breaths in the midst of our own upsets, yes. But reaching out to others? There is no word about that in the book. Parents live in isolation. And there is precious little support for breaking out of it. As good and important as this book is, it does not help parents break out of isolation.

Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell

Parenting from the Inside Out, 10th Anniversary Edition. Penguin

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