By Claire Louge, Executive Director
A few months ago, I was watching a discussion between renowned neuroscientist and author Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Melissa Merrick, the President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America. The discussion was centered on Dr. Perry’s new book, What Happened to You?
If you’ve ever heard Dr. Perry or Dr. Merrick speak, you won’t be surprised that the entire discussion was filled with glorious tidbits of research and stories that affirmed the critical importance of preventing and addressing child adversity.
There was one concept, however, that struck me most. Dr. Perry said that anything done to effectively promote child well-being has one common goal: to make it more possible for parents and caregivers to be present with their children.
He didn’t mean ‘present’ as in ‘always with them’. He meant present in the sense of being able to be attentive and connected when they are together.
Why does presence matter so much? Think about the times that you have really felt present with someone else. What does that feel like? What does it look like? For me, it means active listening and focusing on the moment. It means intentionally setting aside thoughts about to do lists, ruminations on the past, or anticipations of the future. It’s being in reality with someone else.
It sounds simple, but you and I both know it’s often hard to stay present. Our brains are wired to mull over our past experiences to predict future threats. Our world has a lot of distractions, and there is a lot that needs to be done to maintain the pace of life necessary to have the resources to survive stably.
Presence, though, is the doorway to human connection, belongingness, learning, teaching, and empathy. Being present allows us to access what is most meaningful in our human lives. Being present with another human being gives us the ability to witness them for who they are and who they are striving to be, and that witnessing, I believe, is the best gift we can give to anyone. It is the best, most nurturing gift we can give to children.
If we want all children to flourish, they must have present adults in their lives. At its most atomic level, that is what prevention is working to do. That’s why most strategies to prevent child abuse and neglect -like strengthening economic supports for families, addressing mental health challenges, quality child care, teaching parenting skills, or connecting parents through community events – are about reducing overwhelming stress- or ‘overload’ on parents and families. When we reduce overwhelm, we increase the capacity and ability for adults to be present with their children. We are creating the conditions for children to flourish.
Every human being benefits from present people in their lives. This holiday season, I hope you find moments to set aside churning thoughts of the past or your worries of the future to be present with people you love. I hope you are able to witness them for who they are, and be witnessed for who you are. I hope you are able to give- and receive – the powerful gift of presence.