The Whole-Brain Child
Review by April Prescott
Dr. Dan Siegel began his career as a medical doctor with a focus on pediatrics. His practice then evolved to include the field of interpersonal neurobiology – the study of social relationship and how our deep, inner experiences connect with the inner experiences of others through our neurobiology. This field combines all fields of science and asks questions like “What is the human mind? How does the human mind develop?” and finds practical applications for everyday life. He is the author of many books, one of which is “The Whole Brain Child” which he co-authored with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
“The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive” brings the field of interpersonal neurobiology to parenting and offers effective strategies backed by neural and behavioral sciences. It takes the ultra-scientific and boils it down to the bare bones of what parents can do right now to be a loving and attuned caregiver.
Summary of the 12 strategies:
#1: Connect and Redirect: Seek first to connect through emotion before redirecting undesirable behavior.
When your child is upset, connect first emotionally, right brain to right brain. Then, once she is more in control and receptive, bring in the left-brain lessons and discipline.
Left Brain = logical, literal, linguistic and linear
Right Brain = holistic, emotional, experiential, autobiographical and non-verbal
No matter how nonsensical and frustrating the child's feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to the child. It is for this reason that we must first connect through emotions to then be able to come to a logical solution.
#2: Name it to Tame it: Giving our big feelings a name and a story can help give context and a sense of control to a child.
When big, right-brain emotions are raging out of control, help your child tell the story about what's upsetting him/her. In doing so, they will use their left brain to make sense of their experience and feel more in control. Storytelling allows us to make sense of our world by putting things in order, using both hemispheres together.
#3. Engage, don't enrage: Once you have connected through emotion and given these emotions a name, you can address the “upstairs brain” by giving choices and designing a plan towards resolution. This helps a child think rather than just acting on impulse or emotions.
Downstairs brain = basic functions, such as heart rate, respiratory rate, fight/flight/freeze response, etc.
Upstairs brain = making decisions, emotional control, empathy, morality
The downstairs brain is fully developed at birth, meanwhile, the upstairs brain is not mature until our mid-20s. It is one of the last parts to develop.
“The behaviors and skills we want and expect our kids to demonstrate, like sound decision making, control of their emotions and bodies, empathy, self-understanding, and morality – are dependent on a part of their brain that hasn't fully developed yet.”
#4. Use it or Lose it: Provide lots of opportunities to exercise the upstairs brain so it can be strong and integrated with the downstairs brain and body.
Exercise the upstairs brain:
- making decisions
- controlling emotions and the body
You may have heard the term “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This concept is saying the same thing, that when we want to develop a new behavior, skill or habit, we need mass practice and repetitions. If you want your child to develop empathy, morality, self-control and the ability to self-regulate, you need to give opportunities to learn and develop these skills by activating the “upstairs brain”.
#5. Move it or lose it: Help a child regain upstairs-downstairs balance is to have them move their body. If we change our physical state, we can change our emotional state because the body constantly sends information to the brain. There is a host of evidence regarding the brain-body connection and the gut brain, showing that the nerves that encompass the digestive tract play a large part in our overall health, well-being, and ability to make choices. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is a circuit of some 100 million nerve cells throughout the gut. The interaction between the ENS, the microbiome of the gut and the central nervous system is pivotal for overall health. By encouraging our children to move, we can help develop the connection between the CNS and the ENS.
#6. Use the remote of the mind: After an event, the internal remote lets a child pause, rewind and fast-forward a story when retelling, so they can maintain control over how much they view.
Implicit Memories are those that are encoded from before birth and help create our primary template from which we build all other connections and meaning upon. The first 18 months is only implicit memory which sets up templates of expectations for the future. Explicit Memories are conscious recollections of past experiences. Troubling events can be the result of a trigger connected to implicit memory. The goal is to take the troubling experiences and make them explicit so the whole puzzle can be seen with clarity and meaning.
#7. Remember to remember: Exercise their memory by giving them lots of practice remembering by retelling stories again and again. By retelling stories, you develop connections between different areas of the brain, building meaning on top of explicit memories. This integration of implicit and explicit memories creates a context that can help reduce overwhelm and fear responses for children and focus on the job of the upstairs brain, by making meaning out of chaos.
#8. Let the clouds of emotion roll by: Remind kids of the impermanence of emotions. Emotions are temporary states that typically last 30 seconds. Moods tend to linger but are also temporary. By reminding our children (and ourselves) that emotions are not permanent, we can take some of the hurt out of unpleasant emotional experiences and help our children return to a sense of calm faster.
#9. SIFT: Notice and understand Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts. By bringing awareness to our sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we are being mindful. Attentive awareness to these four elements, all of which are fleeting, can help them pass. It also helps us learn more about ourselves and how we respond to certain stimuli. This can be a great way for children to learn more about how they are wired and how they could maybe respond in a more positive way next time.
#10. Exercise Mindsight: Mindsight teaches children to calm themselves and focus their attention where they want. Mindsight is the understanding of our own mind as well as understanding the minds of others. The neurological basics of mindsight come from mirror neurons, and that we are sensitive to the thoughts, emotions, and energy of those around us. It is also the basis for empathy, and if we can see ourselves in others, we are more likely to be able to respond to difficult emotions with loving kindness. By being aware of ourselves in others, we are being mindful. Mindfulness is the intention to pay attention.
#11. Increase the fun factor: Build fun into the day so that your kids enjoy positive and satisfying experiences. By doing so, kids learn important relational skills like communicating well, interpreting facial expressions, understanding nonverbal communication, sharing, and sacrificing. They develop models about how relationships work. By creating positive experiences you create positive reinforcement about what it means to be in a good relationship.
#12. Connect through Conflict: Rather than an obstacle to avoid, view conflict as an opportunity to teach your kids essential relationship skills. Sharing, taking turns, and asking for and granting forgiveness are important concepts children as old as 3 are ready to learn. Model these and take the time to explain towards an understanding of what it means to be in a relationship and how to be considerate and respectful, even during conflict.
A little on tantrums and the amygdala:
The job of the amygdala is to process and express emotions, especially fear and anger. When it senses a threat, it can take over, acting before thinking. The amygdala frequently blocks the upstairs brain from connecting to the downstairs brain. This is a problem: not only is the upstairs brain “under construction” during childhood and adolescence, but even the part that can function is inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress. This is how tantrums come to be. There are two types of tantrums: upstairs and downstairs. An upstairs Tantrum is when a child decides to throw a fit. She makes a conscious choice to act out (not driven by a basic need but driven by a want). In response to this type of tantrum, don't negotiate, don't ignore, but do follow through. Connect through emotion, then give clear and concise expectations and directions to move beyond the tantrum. Be sure to take the time to teach after the tantrum, not during. A downstairs tantrum is when a child becomes so upset he is no longer able to use his upstairs brain (amygdala has taken over, driven by a need) and is incapable of controlling body or emotions. Respond by connecting first and then redirecting.
This book is a must-read for parents who are looking for a disciplinary process for their children that is not based on extrinsic rewards or punishment. Dr. Siegel is a master at teaching neuroscience to the general population and using real strategies that you can apply immediately after reading. The book itself is written in an easy-to-read format, including simple illustrations that help convey his message. He also has many resources online, including videos that accompany the book. “The Whole Brain Child” also has a workbook that parents can go through to help the information really sink in. I highly recommend this book for anyone who takes care of children and is seeking to know more about child behavior and positive ways to respond.
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