Present - not perfect.
In NVR, we talk about increasing parental presence, but what do we mean?
When we talk about presence, we often think about physical presence so it makes sense to think of increasing parental presence as simply spending more time with our children. Although that’s great, and important, that isn’t really what we mean. We can be in the same room as somebody, even sharing in a joint activity, but our mind can be elsewhere - we can be physically present but emotionally very much absent. So there’s something about being emotionally present as well as physically present - paying attention, being genuinely engaged, laughing, playing, making space for each other and enjoying each other’s company - but still there’s more to parental presence.
In NVR, parental presence is also about space that we take up in the minds of our children - it’s about the way we’re perceived when we’re together, and the way we’re remembered when we’re apart (and whether we’re remembered at all).
Broadly speaking, when our parental presence is high:
We spend time together regularly and our children typically experience this as positive. This looks different at different ages and stages of childhood, and it looks different from family to family. It’s the boring stuff like helping them get dressed and supporting them to clean their teeth. It’s doing chores or homework together. It’s eating meals together. It’s driving from A to B - and the interactions/conversations that take place along the way. It’s also the fun and exciting stuff - those moments of pure joy when we laugh out loud together. And it’s the listening ear and the shoulder to cry on when life’s handed them a hard blow. It’s everything in between.
Our children feel and internalise our love and our care. They know we’re genuinely interested in what they think and feel. They know that we consider them worthy of our time and worthy of our focused attention.
Our children have a clear sense of what’s important to us. They know and understand what we stand for, and they know what we won’t stand for. They respect and identify with our values, and the way that we live our lives. They look to us as guides, as role-models.
They can roughly predict how we’ll respond in a range of situations and they have a clear understanding of how we expect them to respond to the situations they face. We have a level of authority that positively affects the way that our children behave when they’re with us, and also when they’re not with us. They think twice before behaving in ways that they know we’ll disapprove of.
Although they respect us, and they experience us as strong, they can think for themselves and they aren’t afraid to challenge us when, from their perspective, we fall short.
They perceive us as both willing and capable to step in and help when things in their lives become too much for them to handle on their own.
Our children hold us in mind when we’re not together. We become their inner voice.
When our parental presence is high, we have more influence in the lives of our children - and our influence is both positive and protective. Sometimes parental presence is represented as a secure anchor in choppy waters - preventing our children from drifting too far from our values as they face the inevitable constant stream of difficulties, dilemmas, temptations, and pressure from peers.
Increasing our parental presence isn’t always as simple as putting into practice textbook strategies and approaches and watching as relationships with our children transform overnight. That can and does happen for some, but increasing our parental presence is more typically a slow and bumpy journey - involving trial and error as well as a great deal of persistence. The way that we parent today might not make much of a difference today or tomorrow or this week, but with perseverance, we can find that life is totally transformed in six months or a year.
Even a long way into our journey with NVR, we can find that our parental presence goes up and down according to what’s going on in our lives, and what’s going on in the lives of our children. Our nervous systems (theirs and ours) are in constant communication - sending and receiving messages, usually unconsciously. We can find that our parental presence is higher with one child in the family than it is with another. Sometimes we need to take some time to reflect on what’s happening and we need to think seriously about what needs to shift.
Increasing our parental presence is more likely to be a bumpy journey when we’re parenting children with an extensive history of loss/trauma, neurodivergent children, and children who experience significant mental health difficulties. Here at NVR informed North East, our personal parenting experience (and a great deal of our professional experience) involves children with these extra challenges.
Here are some ideas to get you started, or to help you continue, on your journey towards increasing your parental presence:
Connect with your values and parent with confidence, from your gut. You might find yourself over-accommodating at times - lowering your expectations more than is necessary, appropriate, or helpful. At other times, you might find yourself being unfair and expecting a bit too much. It’s okay. Being imperfect comes with the parenting territory and it’s not something we can, or even should, avoid. Once we start to notice that we’re not getting something quite right, we can apologise, repair, and recalibrate. When we parent from the gut, with confidence, we’re more likely to be perceived as strong, congruent and authentic - the hallmarks of emotionally safe people.
Don’t ever let guilt take hold. Once we’re aware that we’ve got something wrong, and we’ve decided to put things right, guilt has done its job, served its purpose. It’s time for self-acceptance and self-compassion. Apart from being good for our own mental health, it’s great role-modelling when we show our children that we can move on after we’ve taken responsibility for correcting our mistakes. If we can narrate our internal processes then even better because it’ll help lay the foundations for emotional intelligence.
Get to know your own nervous system. Read about Stephen Porges polyvagal theory and Dan Siegel’s window of tolerance. Identify your own nervous system states and identify what causes you to move in and out of them - get to know your triggers and also get to know what helps you to regulate (Deb Dana calls these glimmers). Practice mindfulness. Practice grounding. Practice self-care. If need be, reach out for professional support.
Focus primarily on your own regulation, boundaries, and behaviour. Let the measure of your parenting success (and your success with NVR) be how closely your own behaviour matches with your values, rather than how closely the behaviour of your children matches your values. You have an awful lot more control over one than the other.
You can’t do this on your own. Build a support network. It can take a long time to build a network of people who are genuinely helpful, so start straight away. Your support network can be friends, family or professionals. They can be people you meet in real life or they might be people you connect with online. Lots of parents find practicing NVR much easier with the support of an NVR practitioner.
A personal story:
I remember when I was babysitting my baby niece in her own home. She was about a year old, not yet walking. She could put a couple of words together but she wasn’t at the point of speaking in sentences. She crawled across the room, away from her toys, right up to a plug socket at about her eye level on the wall. She looked around to see if she was being observed, hesitated for a few seconds, before muttering “Mummy. No.” and crawling back to safety. My sister had obviously said “No” on numerous occasions, maybe even moved her away, and this was now her inner voice when faced with a plug socket. She knew what my sister would want her to do when she came across a plug socket - and that was exactly what she did. A lovely example of parental presence.
I read this blog post out to my (almost adult) daughter before publishing - my children are good at challenging and calling out any nonsense. My daughter said: “Yeah, all that makes sense - but it’s not just a little voice is it - it’s like a full on conversation. I see an empty can on the side of the road and I really want to kick it. I hear your voice saying ‘(her name). No.’ I think ‘But I’ve got ADHD and I’m feeling really impulsive. I really want to kick it.’ I remember when we were younger and (their other mother) used to pick up other people’s rubbish in the street and put it in the bin so I think ‘I’m supposed to put this in the bin.’ Then I think ‘They’re not here. It’s up to me what I do, and I want to kick this.’ But then I can’t kick it because you're still saying ‘(her name). No.’ The arguments in my head can go on for a while.”
If you want to hear more, have a story to share, or you think we can help, we’d love to hear from you.