Dr. Tina Payne Bryson began her Whole-Brain parenting workshop last Sunday with a mention of Lise Eliot’s book “What’s Going On In There: How The Mind And Brain Develop In The First Five Years“. I haven’t yet read this book (although I do have her later one, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain”), but from what I understand, one of Eliot’s main discussion points is about the critical role that experience (and thus environment) plays in shaping the brain. This review on isi.edu gives a good synopsis:
“A baby is born with (almost) all of its neurons, but very few connections between them. The baby spends [the] first few years (especially the first two) growing these connections, called synapses – many millions A SECOND – and also busily pruning them. Only those synapses that are stimulated by experience or practice will be preserved – the rest will be eliminated. All of our experiences, knowledge and understanding are encoded in the brain by a pattern of synapse strengths….If repeated experience is not provided during the critical period of some portion of the brain’s maturation, it will forever loose its functionality”.
This explanation of the connections and pruning was made explicit by a projection Dr. Bryson showed of the neural connections in the brain at 3 different ages – newborn, age 6 and age 11. An infant has many millions less connections than a child does by age 6, which Dr. Bryson pointed out is obvious if you have ever tried to have a conversation with a 6-year old: everything is connected for them, everything leads to something else. By approximately age 11 for girls and age 12.5 for boys, their brains are in the “pruning stage” where whatever they are not using withers and dies, allowing their brain to become lean, mean and more focused.
Early brain development
What determines what gets cut and what becomes wired into our brains? Our brain is shaped by genes and experiences. Neurons that fire together are wired together. For example, if you have ever had the experience of eating (or drinking) too much of something and getting sick, you are likely no longer able to eat or drink that particular item because of the association your brain has. The same thing happens with experiences.
Parents and teachers are “brain architects”. The times we are imperfect help our children’s brains become structured for forgiveness and repair. In other words, when you have a “rupture” with your child like a fight or a loss of patience, it is so important to go immediately to repairing so that what is wired in your child’s brain is not something like “when I show my big feelings, it is dangerous for me”, but rather, “when I lose control, I am still loveable”.
Left Brain/Right Brain
For the first 3 -5 years of your child’s life, their right hemisphere is dominant. From 5 – 7.5, their left hemisphere takes over. And from 7.5 – 11 or so, the right is once again more dominant, but the shift is less dramatic. When I began studying child development one of the pieces of information that helped me the most was learning about a child’s stages of disequilibrium (most often occurring during the half years). Dr. Bryson pointed out that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton believes that these states of disequilibrium often coincide with micro growth spurts in the brain. Knowing that there is a good reason for your child’s difficult behavior can be very helpful in being more understanding of it.
The left hemisphere specializes in:
The right hemisphere specializes in:
- Autobiographical memory
- Senses, Emotion
- Whole Picture Context
So What #1?
I loved that Dr. Bryson would periodically stop and say “So What?” as if to mean, “So, what does this mean to me? What am I supposed to do with this?”. After all of this information about early brain development she laid out the “So What”:
Connect, then redirect
When children are experiencing what Dr. Bryson referred to as an “emotional tsunami” we, as parents, tend to do a lot of talking. Too much talking disregulates the child further. Instead, connect from your right hemisphere to their right hemisphere: pull your child close, use non-verbal communication, use a soothing tone of voice, show empathy, use your facial expressions and empathetic talk to show you “get it”. This helps regulate your child so they can calm down. Once you’ve done this then begin to use your left brain to offer solutions, planning and give logical explanations.
Help them tell their story
When a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, they both need and want to know why, but they can’t access this information because they are in such an intense emotional state. They need you to tell the story of the trauma. This is when reflective parenting can be very helpful: “You were really having fun playing with that toy and when sister took it away you got so mad. You were so mad you were screaming and kicking and then you started to cry”. You are connecting to the left brain by putting things in order and assigning words. But you are also connecting to the right brain by giving autobiographical information, showing the whole context and detailing emotional information. This helps wire the brain to see that something happens, you talk about it and then you make sense of it. This method can be very helpful with tantrums.
Why Do Kids Misbehave?
What are your biggest struggles with your kids? Do these sound familiar?
- Takes foolish risks
- Never know what will set them off
- Mood swings
- Wants to do things his/her own way
I’ve written a lot about my own triggers. Dr. Bryson suggests giving some thought to your children’s triggers for misbehavior:
- Low blood sugar causes stress hormones to be released
- The need for stimulation. This can cause discomfort in the brain and a child can appear anxious and have the need to move vigorously. This movement actually releases serotonin which calms the brain.
- They are communicating a need.
- Your stress and frustration. Kids will pick up on this so quickly.
- Growth spurts
- Experimentation/testing boundaries
- Releasing/expressing big feelings
- Brain development
So What #2? Rethink Discipline.
Discipline is not about consequences. The point of discipline is to teach. Every time your child does something wrong it is an opportunity to teach them how to do it right. Every time your child misbehaves:
- They are communicating: “I need to build skills in this area!”
- Think about what skills are lagging
- Think about what the triggers are for the problem that is occurring
- Think about what needs to be developed
- Remember that their brain is still developing
- Use the phrase “you’re showing me you still need practice doing ___”
In working with our children this way, we are helping our children develop the skills we hope them to have: sound decision making, rational problem solving, being able to regulate their emotions, having personal insight and reflection, and being able to face their fears.
My Amygdala Made Me Do it!
Dr. Bryson discussed the “downstairs” or “primitive” brain which is made up of the brain stem and limbic system, and the “upstairs” brain which is made up of the frontal lobe and mid prefrontal cortex which is where more reasoned thinking takes place. This is the part of the brain that does not develop fully until age 23 in girls and age 25 in boys.
When fear and/or anger happens, the downstairs brain hijacks the upstairs brain. Because this area is still developing in our children, it is easily taken over by the more primitive and reactive part of the brain.
Upstairs Tantrums, Downstairs Tantrums
There are different types of tantrums, which are controlled by the different parts of our brains. These two types call for different styles of response from us. Here, Dr. Bryson separates the two:
- Manipulative and controlling
- Child can be reasoned with
- Child can still make choices and is still in control
- Parent should respond with an emphasis on authority (with warmth)
- Set boundaries and limits with emotional responsiveness
- Loss of control, in distress/miserable
- Reasoning doesn’t work
- Stress hormones are raging
- Can’t make choices
- Parent should respond with comfort
- Emphasize warmth with authority
So What #3?
Give your child practice using their “upstairs” brain. Here are some suggestions on how to develop it:
- Offer choices or negotiate
- Emphasize empathy (Ask: “how can you make it right” if they have hurt someone else or misbehaved – this gets them thinking from another’s perspective)
- Emphasize personal insight and reflection
- Give them practice doing it the right way
- Allow them to struggle and face natural consequences
- Allow them to make their argument, listen to them, sometimes make a concession
- Be present and intentional. Reflecting the situation gives your child language for the future. For example: “It’s
- OK if you want to be upset. I’m with you while you’re upset. Let me know when you want to be a problem solver”. Later, once they’ve calmed down, you can say “You were pretty mad. Do you really hate mommy? You just didn’t have the words to tell me how you felt, huh? What could you do next time?”
Do Time Outs Work?
There are 2 questions to ask yourself when your child is having a tough time:
- What is the lesson I want my child to learn right now?
- What is the most effective way to teach that lesson?
When you operate from this frame of mind you are being emotionally responsive, yet setting limits. Time outs don’t work because they are just a punishment. Your child is not getting any practice doing things the right way. Conversation, not time outs, is often the most effective way to teach your children.
The question to ask yourself is what do you want to be wired in your child? For me it is: “When you go through big emotions, I will be with you”. Dr. Bryson suggests that punishing a child with methods like time outs only lead them to see rejection, isolation and that when things are emotionally hard, mom or dad isn’t going to be here for me.
The workshop ended with a short session of questions and answers about developing empathy, how to handle breakdowns in public and getting out of power struggles. I left Dr. Bryson’s presentation with a much better sense of what was going on for my children when they’re being “difficult” and I believe this understanding has made me more attuned and more respectful.
I realize there is a ton of information in both this post and the previous one I wrote about Dr. Dan Siegel’s lecture, but I just didn’t want to leave anything out. Dr. Bryson is a witty, inspiring and insightful speaker, I would highly recommend hearing her lecture if you get the chance. And again, her book with Dr. Siegel, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, is due to be out October 4th. Based on early reviews, I think this is going to be a must read!
So, what do you think? Does this information about how the brain develops and works seem like it could be helpful to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you might use it or what questions it brings up for you.