Last weekend I was thrilled to attend a lecture given by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. discussing their new book The Whole-Brain Child. I attended two previous lectures given by Dan and Tina a few months ago and wrote about them in the posts Compassionate, Resilient Children Begin In The Mind and A Little Brain Science Can Help Us Raise Children Who Thrive. The work that is presented in this book is one of the most exciting things I’ve come across since becoming a parent.
In part, my excitement stems from seeing that science is finally proving what those of us interested in the metaphysical have intuited for so many years: that the integration of mind, body and spirit is imperative for optimal health. But beyond that, I am excited by the prospect of a book that helps families not by simply giving parents band-aid solutions, but by offering revolutionary insight into why our children behave the way they do, why what we’re doing may not be working and giving us simple, effective strategies for what to do next!
Integration Is Health
The lecture I attended was a chance to listen to Drs Siegel and Bryson explain the concepts behind their book. Dr. Siegel began by describing integration as “separate things working together as a functional whole”. Without integration, he said, there is chaos, rigidity and disturbances in well-being. But when there is integration, we see things are flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable. This way of being, Dr. Siegel said, is a good definition of mental health and a great goal for our children. As he continued to speak on the subject we learned that certain relational experiences (such as abuse and neglect) can damage integrative fibers in the brain, but integrative communication actually stimulates the growth of these same brain fibers. This book, they propose, offers 12 strategies that will help us move from chaos, anxiety and rigidity to a state of integration.
I’m going to pass on some of what I learned about the first 4 strategies:
- Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves
- Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions
- Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain
- Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain
Left Brain Emotional Desert Vs. Right Brain Emotional Tsunami
Dr. Bryson continued with an explanation of what goes on in each hemisphere of our brain. She refers to the left brain as being an emotional desert because it specializes in non-emotional things:
The right side can be an emotional tsunami because it specializes in:
- Non-verbal communication
- Whole picture context
- Autobiographical memory
- Senses emotions
- Senses body information
Remembering that during your child’s first 3 – 5 years of life, his behavior is dominated by right brain functions can help you understand why he often seems to act in completely illogical ways! We cannot expect our child to be able to communicate logically with us when their right brain is flooded. But they can communicate in a non-verbal way. We just need to pay attention to their:
- Eye contact
- Facial expression
- Tone of voice
- Intensity of response
Connect Before Your Redirect
When we can be aware that our child is acting from their right brain (having a massive meltdown) she likely is unable to connect to her left brain. Thus, you cannot help her by being logical (left brain) about what she perceives to be the end of the world. Instead, you must first meet her where she is at. By doing this you help integrate her left and right hemispheres.
This applies even when it’s a “little t” tantrum as opposed to a “big T” tantrum (as Dr. Bryson refers to them). If you have a child who has left his bedroom after lights out to complain to you about something that seems to you totally nonsensical, you may simply want to tell him “it’s late, you’re tired, go back to sleep and we’ll talk about this tomorrow”. By doing this, you can miss the opportunity to move your child back to integration. Instead, connect first with your right brain and use non-verbal comfort:
- Tone of voice
- Facial expression
- Pausing until you become aware of your child’s state shifting
Then redirect with your left brain:
- Offer solutions and problem solving
- Use words
- Logical explanations
- Set boundaries
The problem we parents have is that we often get defensive, we interpret things literally and we miss the context of what our children are saying (that is, the meaning between the lines). This can be a missed opportunity to develop secure attachments with your children, a missed opportunity to help them feel “felt”.
When you don’t manage to respond well to your child, make sure you talk about what happened later when you’re both calm. Use reflective dialogue to relate back to them what happened. “You were so angry before and mommy just couldn’t understand what you needed. When you threw your toy at me I got very frustrated and lost my patience. I am so sorry.” Studies show this type of work allows children to understand more fully how their own feelings affect them, it gives them more developed memory and a rich inner life so they have a deeper understanding of others. And perhaps most important to understand is that it helps integrate their left and right hemispheres.
Talking to your children about the mind and what happens in moments of crisis turn those moments into learning experiences. Many of us do this because we look at it as practice for our children in how to handle setbacks, but what we may not be realizing is that doing this actu
ally builds neuronal fibers in the brain. We are literally helping our child make “connections”. The more these skills are learned before adolescence, the easier the teen years will be. In fact, Dr. Siegel believes this work is so important that he suggested (only half jokingly) that we forget the old idea of the 3 R’s and instead focus on Reflection, honoring Relationships and Resilience.
How to Handle Things When Your Child Is Acting Out
Did you know that one’s prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until age 25? This is the part of the brain that aids in decision making, empathy, impulse control, personal insight, rational problem solving and more. It’s no wonder we have so many difficulties with our children involving these issues!
What we need to begin to recognize is that there are so many reasons our children act out. Some are more obvious than others:
- Low blood sugar (triggers stress hormones)
- The need for stimulation (children actually experience this as discomfort)
- Communicating a need
- Picking up on our own stress/frustration
- Growth spurt
- Expressing/releasing big feelings
- Brain development
- Downstairs hijack (their lower, reptilian brain takes over their more rational brain)
Big tantrums and meltdowns are actually a call for us to hear that what our child is actually saying in that moment is “I need skill building in this area!”
In these moments of difficulty, ask yourself which part of your child’s brain you want to appeal to. The most important question to aks yourself is “what is the lesson I want taught here? What is the most compassionate, empathetic way I can do it?” If you simply command and demand things, you are likely going to engage your child’s downstairs (or reptilian) brain and end up in a power struggle. Instead, you could give your child an opportunity to develop their upstairs brain:
- Offer choices or negotiate
- Empathize, give insight, ask questions
- Give your child practice doing things the right way
- Don’t remove life’s obstacle (allowing them to fail helps them develop resiliency)
- Provide secure relationships
There is obviously so much more in The Whole-Brain Child and after the lecture I said to the friends who had gone with me that I could have sat there all day and listened to Dan and Tina speak. Each chapter takes you a little deeper into understanding how the mind works. One of the things I loved most that we learned was that the more you use the methods outlined in this book, the more your brain (and your child’s brain) changes and adapts until this integrated way of being simply becomes who you are!
The beauty of a book like this is that it helps parents not only enhance the lives of our own children, but because our children then have such a rich awareness of themselves and their emotions, they in turn impact the lives of those around them in an ever-expanding wave of integration. “There’s nothing more important you can do as a parent than to be intentional about the way you’re shaping your child’s mind,” the authors write toward the end of the book. “What you do matters profoundly.”