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The Balance of Being-With

Being-With is, in many ways, at the heartbeat of our Circle of Security approach. It’s such a simple concept: the need every child has for caregivers (parents, teachers, etc.) to recognize and honor feelings by staying with core feelings rather than denying their importance.

At the center of this Being With approach is decades of research that make it clear that we learn to manage feelings (for example, anger, sadness, fear, joy, shame, and curiosity) by experiencing the sponsorship of an adult who is with us in the feeling rather than staying outside the feeling and focusing only on our behavior. Surprising to many is the research that shows how 2 year olds who’ve been raised in a context of Being-With are actually less demanding, throw fewer tantrums, and are more responsive to their parents requests than children who’ve been raised without this approach.

In science speak: Co-regulation leads to self-regulation. The shared management of feelings allows emotions to become safe and thus supports the ability to manage them on our own in the future.

“When I know that you care about my feelings and are willing to join me in how they feel to me, I no longer feel alone or overwhelmed by what seems so difficult in this moment. When you help me organize what currently feels chaotic, I can calm down and make sense of what previously felt so difficult. This helps me build a new capacity to deal with these feelings on my own.”

And yet, the plot thickens.

There’s an opposite problem that can show up precisely as some of us are learning about the importance of Being-With.

Feelings are very important. The danger is that some of us might begin to believe that feelings need to become all-important and attempt to stop the world every time our child has a feeling. Such a child would then begin to think his or her feelings deserve focus 24/7. That would be a sad and unintended consequence of what we’re trying to say.

Being-With is always about balance, one in which a child learns that feelings are profound and essential and deserve full availability . . . some of the time. Knowing that we have someone who genuinely cares about all of our feelings and that each feeling can be shared is at the core of our approach to secure attachment. But if a child has a caregiver who suddenly stops everything and commits fully to being 100% available every time her or his child starts to feel, emotions would begin to rule the relationship in a very unhealthy way.

“I know you feel really sad right now, but we need to get in the car so I can get you to school and get me to work. I know you feel really terrible and we’ll return to how this feels soon, but not right now.”

Said simply: We live in a shared world. All children need to know that their feelings are central to someone some of the time and they also need to know that other people have feelings and priorities that are just as central to them. Feelings can be shared which includes sharing our world with others who also have feelings.

The goal is building a capacity to focus directly on feelings with children but not to over-focus on every feeling at the expense of the bigger picture that other’s have feelings too. “You matter to me. I also matter to me. And so do those we live with.”

It’s called balance.