Dr Denise Garcia On How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine
14 min readJan 9, 2023

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You’re attitudes, behavior, and non-verbal communication around your child. You can have the best intentions by saying all the right things, but if you’re rolling your eyes and frowning at others, your child Will embody those behaviors too and use them toward you (even if you never used those behaviors toward them).

Parenting is challenging. We all try so hard to give our all to our children. We desperately want them to feel loved and connected. But somehow there is often a disconnect. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or that we don’t seem to speak the same language as our children, or just all of the “disconnection” that our kids are dealing with in today’s frenetic world. What are steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? As a part of our series about “How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected” we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Denise Garcia.

Dr. Denise Garcia is a doctor of psychology, a marriage and family therapist, and a professional parenting consultant. Dr. Garcia is a passionate mother who explains child-rearing in a way that provides clarity through digestible brain-based knowledge that deconstructs societal expectations to help others find peace with parenting. Dr. Garcia is working on eight years of training, studies, and experience with families, making her a parenting expert and leader.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know a bit about you. Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

My family immigrated from Mexico before I was born. My parents were able to become homeowners when I was two years old, but that came with many trials and tribulations for my childhood as we lived impoverished for most of my upbringing. Poverty and little knowledge of the new culture created a circumstance where we held little to no privilege. It was like living in a place without a road map to access social and psychological needs. This led me to explore psychology and sociology in my bachelorette studies, then marriage and family therapy. When I worked as a therapist in community organizations, I focused my training on childhood trauma. Luckily, the training I received was based on the neurobiology of children and their parents, which led me to become a parenting expert and to have a unique perspective on parenting.

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

After becoming a mother in 2021, I unconsciously fell into the psychological and social pressure to do things right. I wondered if there was a right and wrong way to do things concerning how to raise my baby. I applied my knowledge of neurology to what society and typical parenting mindsets deem as appropriate ways to treat children, specifically around the cry-it-out method. The cry-it-out method is used so frequently that it has become the unquestioned rule of sleep and a way to train your baby for parents to catch a break. However, it is the epitome of maladaptive coping. It teaches children early on that their feelings are unnecessary and will not be cared for while in their crib. This method led me to research and study gentle ways of sleep acquisition, leading me on a journey to brain-based-gentle, connected, and respectful parenting methods that align with a child’s developing mind.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you explain to us why it is so important to forge a strong connection with our children?

Children are born to connect their brains and are hard-wired to seek safety from their caregivers, mainly the ones who birthed them. If the birth parent isn’t available, it’s a loss for the baby, but they will adjust to a new one. This hard wiring isn’t just because the baby wants to. It’s a need that must be fulfilled both biologically and psychologically, as they are so biologically vulnerable they know they need food and protection from their caregivers. They also crave familiarity as they could hear mom and other sounds around during the last few weeks of gestation. Why? One of the reasons is evolution.

If babies didn’t cry when their adults weren’t around, they were in danger of becoming prey. As these babies age, continuing to tend to their emotional needs, like providing reassurance when they are hurt or afraid, is essential for connection. They will eventually learn that these feelings are valid and that you care. If you are consistent in this parenting style, your children will entrust their feelings with you in the future when they are teenagers and beyond.

What happens when children do not have that connection or only have a weak connection?

Many things can happen. For example, they won’t tell their parents when they are experiencing challenges with peers or within themselves. Some teens struggle with bullying, or maybe even someone assaulting them, and they won’t share that because they don’t explicitly know that you care because you never paid attention to their emotional needs. They implicitly learn that their feelings are not part of the family culture or that emotions are repressed.

They can also turn to others to fulfill connection needs. Maybe they entrust a friend that gives them misguided and uninformed advice that can lead to negative outcomes.

Do you think children in this generation are less likely to feel loved and connected? Why do you feel the way you do?

Unfortunately, fostering a connection with your children is not common knowledge. Most parents have the best intentions and are mainly focused on high academic achievement. Parents usually assume they have a good relationship with their children because they meet their physiological needs and provide for them. Connection is not part of societal norms.

Children can appear content with their parents because the parent gives in to unnecessary demands. Screens are one of the demands I have seen in recent years and the biggest connection killers. I have noticed that children using their phones often lack connection to others, particularly to their closest caregivers. This is because screens are extremely addictive, and children will become more intrinsically motivated to connect with people, influencers, shows, and/or games online than in real life with family. Sadly parents are also too attached to their screens and miss out on opportunities to connect with their children.

We live in a world with constant demands for our time and attention. There is so much distraction and disconnection. Can you share with our readers five steps parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

The first step is to increase your knowledge base on child psychology and neurology. If you learn basic knowledge about your child’s inner world and their brain functioning, then you can assist them in feeling loved and connected in a way that makes sense to you. A child’s brain constantly makes neural connections, approximately 1 million connections per second, and they’re born to connect with their caregivers. It would be best if you executed the immense opportunities for your child to connect with you by starting with increased eye contact, being kind to them, and being in front of them despite their behavior. They should always have clear boundaries, but you should always meet them with kindness, respect, and empathy.

The second step is understanding the sensory stimulation and how your child takes in the world. Some children are more sensitive to sensory input. For example, some young children may get upset with loud noises and cry or have a full-blown tantrum when exposed to a concert; some appear to enjoy concerts. So learning their specific sensory needs means that you’ll know that when your child is upset at a concert, you may need to try noise-canceling headphones. In my clinical experience, parents often complained about their children being unable to sit still. Some children would become more focused when I taught them about the seven senses, in particular, vestibular input, to get pressure on the muscles. For example, I would recommend that parents increase physical play like climbing, jumping, pushing, and pulling, usually found at any playground. These activities could also be proactive at home and set up your couch to encourage jumping, pushing, and climbing safely. The children who appear to be overly active seek some vestibular input.

The third step is to observe. Children constantly respond to your actions, gestures, words, and all non-verbal communication; they are very insightful and rely heavily on you for safety and connection. When you are conscious, respectful, and gentle about your verbal and non-verbal responses to your child, they will find you safe and feel more connected and loved. They can sense the slightest change in your mood and vocal tone and respond without being obvious to us.

The fourth step is to reflect. Notice what part of their behavior is bothering you and ask yourself what part of your childhood or adult experience is being triggered. For example, maybe you were not attended to as a child, and your crying child triggers a memory that causes you anxiety. Reflection is a practice that you need to do daily to recognize situations like this one and to observe yourself and your emotions associated with child-rearing. Whether your feelings are positive or negative about your child’s behavior, it is essential to notice your response to ensure you do not let things fester, become unconscious and blow up in a harmful way for you and your child. If you didn’t reflect during the day, you could use a journal to do it when you get a chance.

The fifth step is to practice unconditional positive regard. Once you understand the above steps, you can incorporate your unconditional positive regard practice, reminding yourself and your child that no matter what your child does, you love them unconditionally. You should begin to notice that your child’s behavior is due to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the control center of the brain) and rapid brain growth. However, it may seem personal when they have certain behaviors. You and your child need to know that their challenging behaviors are not purposeful or manipulative. Practicing unconditional positive regard with your child will sound like: “Mommy and/or Daddy love(s) you no matter what you do.” “ I/We love you when you make the right or wrong decision.”

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

In theory, a good parent may not exist because everyone has different needs for their family and should decide what is best for them. Using labels like “good parent” is another way we unwillingly fall into unhealthy societal expectations for parenthood. If your child is doing well psychologically, you can call yourself a “good parent”.

However, there are guidelines to be mindful of, but you should do what works for your family.

-Basic knowledge in neurology to discover how your child takes in the world and learns.

Parents doing their best are mindful of how their child’s brain works and its development. This is specific for every child. For example, some children are sensory seeking with some senses and not others. The idea behind sensory awareness is that everyone is in the spectrum of tolerance to sensory experiences. My daughter does not like swings, which is in the vestibular sense. My daughter also seems excited over different tactile experiences like slime and sand. In contrast, some children have become distressed with sand and slimy textures.

-Their child’s specific social-emotional needs-

Some children are more sensitive to their emotional responses. For example, my child will cry moderately when her grandparents leave our house because they play and dance all day, whereas another child may have little to no response to their grandparents leaving. It is crucial to respond with empathy and understanding; when a child is crying for any reason, it should be as important to you as it is to them. Children do not want to feel distressed enough to cry; these feelings should be empathized with and worked out with a parent. This will create a neuronal network for trusting you with their distressing feelings.

-You’re attitudes, behavior, and non-verbal communication around your child. You can have the best intentions by saying all the right things, but if you’re rolling your eyes and frowning at others, your child Will embody those behaviors too and use them toward you (even if you never used those behaviors toward them).

I see “funny kids” videos online where they are talking and gesturing negatively in an adult way by rolling their eyes and using inappropriate language. When caregivers get upset about their child’s behavior, it is a sign of unconscious parenting, as the child learns those behaviors first. The good thing about this concept is that if you show your children positive behaviors and attitudes, they will also embody those.

-Awareness and participation in school events.

Parent involvement in school events and programs has more positive academic achievement outcomes. My educational psychology studies found that parents who attended PTA meetings and communicated with their child’s teachers had children with better academic outcomes.

-Attend extracurricular activities, outdoor activities, and/or activities in nature with your child.

Exercise is an incredible way to regulate emotions, sleep better, and maintain a healthy body. Parents who model the importance of exercise will have children who will do the same. If exercise is not an option, being outside is a great way to get children fresh air and space to get some more movement in their day, preferably somewhere with lots of trees. Oxygen provided by trees is much cleaner and has been proven to improve mood, get better sleep, and increase focus.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

It is essential to encourage and not pressure your child to dream big. One of the best things to do is to include positive affirmations in their everyday life and not to include affirmations that include appearance. Focus on social-emotional qualities, personality, and capabilities. For example, “I am a good friend,” “I am working hard at math,” “I am special”, “I am loved”, “I am bright,” and “Today was hard, but tomorrow is a new day”. What you speak toward your child is what they become.

Not only is this beneficial to the child but also to the parent as the parent is practicing positive talk to their child, they are creating awareness around their effectiveness as a positive figure in their lives. This will make your child more resilient and accepting, and loving of themselves. They will also develop a positive self-image and self-talk to help them overcome challenges, including achievement ones.

How would you define “success” when it comes to raising children?

After working many years in the mental health field, receiving my doctorate, and having a child of my own, I learned that being successful at child-rearing is being well-adjusted to the daily routine and being able to adapt to any new or alarming challenges that happen on any given day.

This is a huge topic in itself, but it would be worthwhile to touch upon it here. What are some ideal social media and digital habits that you think parents should teach to their children?

This is a very complex idea, but parents have to teach their children that screens are unhealthy in large amounts. The way that parents can teach this is to model this behavior themselves. This means parents do not use their phones when their children are around.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

  • The Power of Showing Up- Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
  • The Whole Brain Child- Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
  • The YES Brain- Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
  • Parenting from the Inside Out- Dr. Daniel Siegel, and Mary Hartzel
  • No Drama Discipline- Dr. Daniel Siegel, and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
  • The Bottom Line for Baby- Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
  • The Developing Mind- Dr. Daniel Siegel

Dr. Siegle and Dr. Bryson are my favorite resources regarding child-rearing because they have given us the gift of brain-based, digestible knowledge on how to raise children. They provide neurologically sound data to back up their child-rearing concepts. I love their work because they provide me with undeniable knowledge about the brain that just makes sense for children. My clinical training was in treating trauma in young children, and most, if not all, of these books, were part of the training I received and highly regarded by professors and seasoned clinicians alike.

I love any gentle, conscious, and respectful parenting influencers.

Dr. Gabor Mate is a wonderful thought leader in his field (trauma and addiction). I like Dr. Mate’s perspective on children as he often warns parents of young children that many of the addiction clients he has seen over the years have had childhood trauma and stresses the importance of a parent’s role in their child’s upbringing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your children.”- Jerry Tello.

This is relevant because I show my child unconditional physical and psychological love. All parents love their children unconditionally but unconsciously have a hard time showing it. When parents tell their children, they love them no matter what and then put them in a “time out,” this does not show them. Time outs are a common practice that leaves children alone when they need you the most. A child who is not listening needs to feel connected to listen, and it is a perfect time to stay calm and show them that when we are sad/mad, we stick together and work it out. Our family does not separate from each other when we are upset; we show love by connecting and empathizing.

When I heard this quote, it was so transformative because your parents are your first teachers, and if we truly want to see a change in the world, we have to teach parent’s child brain development and positive methods to deal with challenging behaviors.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Thank you for this question. I would love to create a new culture of child-rearing and parenting where the parent is conscious of themselves in the parenting process. Where the parent understands that parenting is only their responsibility as their child’s brain is still developing. Where we do not judge children for their behavior but are met with respect, kindness, and empathy. I believe that we as a society misunderstand our babies, and that is what makes parenting challenging. I hope that one day it becomes normal for parents to connect with their children to intervene with challenging behaviors and be aware of their crucial role in parenting.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.