Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, PH.D wrote an excellent book, entitled, ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ which provides parents and caregivers with 12 innovative strategies to understand and nurture their children’s development.
- In this blog I will provide a brief overview of these concepts: We all have a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere to our brains (often called the right brain and the left brain) and each serves a different purpose. The right brain is concerned more with emotions, nonverbal cues, intuition and the big picture. The left brain is more concerned with logic, language, details and the literal meaning of things. In order to help our children and ourselves develop our brains further we need to help integrate these two hemispheres which brings about clarity and understanding.
- One of the more sophisticated parts of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex; which Dan and Tina refer to as the “Upstairs Brain”), is still under construction throughout childhood and adolescence. This part of the brain is responsible for higher-order and analytical thinking and isn’t fully matured until a person reaches their mid-twenties. Alternatively the “Downstairs Brain” (one part of which is the Amygdala) is responsible for the quick processing and expression of emotions especially fear and anger. This part of the brain is more primitive and allows us to act before we think in situations of danger that require a faster response.
1) “Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves” When your child is upset it is important to first connect using both of your right brains in order to make the emotional connection and to let them know that you ‘get’ that they are upset even if your don’t fully understand the ‘why’ behind it. Then, once your child is more in control and receptive, you are able to bring the left brain into this conversation to talk about any lessons and/or discipline that need to be spoken about.
2) “Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions”: Talking about experiences can be helpful. The telling and re-telling of experiences can actually help to calm big right brain emotions, because the left brain can help make sense of the experiences and it helps to make your child feel more in control.
3) “Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain”: In situations where emotions run high helping your child to access the parts of their “Upstairs Brain” that are available to them rather than triggering the more primitive “Downstairs Brain” can help to engage your child in the solution-making process. Be curious by asking questions providing options/alternatives as well as using this as an opportunity to practice negotiating skills.
4) “Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain”: Helping your child develop their “Upstairs Brain” while it is under construction can help build neural pathways and the process of accessing these pathways time and time again helps to build stronger connections in the future. Making a game out of “What would you do?” and letting your child brainstorm and talk about a variety of solutions to different issues can be a wonderful exercise. While it may be tempting for us to share our own ideas/thoughts, try to avoid rescuing kids from difficult decisions, since it does not provide the same experience as when they are exercising their “Upstairs Brain”.
5)“Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind”: One of the best things that we can do when a child has lost connection with their “Upstairs Brain” is to help them regain balance through movement of their body. Research has demonstrated that our emotional state (i.e. our mood) can be altered through our physical state via movement (e.g. going for a run) or relaxation (e.g. deep breathing).
6) “Use the Remote of the Mind: Replaying Memories: Children rarely have the opportunity to be in control of a lot of what goes on in their worlds and so when they have this opportunity to do so it can be a great learning experience for them. Often times children can be reluctant to talk about painful events/ memories. Using a figurative remote which allows them to ‘pause’, ‘rewind’ and ‘fast-forward’ parts of the story can help them feel more in control of what they wish to share at that point in time and can help them work up to talking about the more difficult details.
7) “Remember to Remember: Making Recollection a Part of Your Family’s Daily Life”:Another important way to help exercise your child’s brain is to help them use the power of recall. Talking about past important events helps to integrate implicit and explicit memories. The simple act giving children the opportunity to tell their stories helps them to improve an understanding of their past and present experiences.
8) “Let the Clouds of Emotions Roll by: Teaching That Feelings Come and Go”: Teaching children that emotions are like clouds they come and they go and letting them roll on by helps to ensure that children understand that these are temporary states rather than enduring traits. Making the distinction between “feel” and “am” is an important one to make (e.g. “I feel sad right now” versus “I am sad”) since the latter may be seen as a defining trait of who they are rather than a temporary state of being of how they are feeling in this moment in time.
9)“SIFT: Paying Attention to What’s Going on Inside: Helping your children pay attention to the “Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts” that resides within them is a helpful way of getting them to be aware of what they are actually experiencing. This is the first important piece in helping your children to develop “Mindsight” which is the understanding of our own minds as well as the minds of others.
10) “Exercise ‘Mindsight’: Getting Back to the Hub”: The “Wheel of Awareness” is a tool that can help us visualize our mind like the wheel of a bike complete with an outer rim, spokes and an inner hub. Our thoughts, feelings, dreams, memories, perceptions and bodily sensations are on the outer rim of the wheel and the centre hub is the place in which our awareness resides, this is the place from which we are able to choose what point on the rim we wish to focus on (the spokes, see below). Children, like adults, can find themselves stuck on a particular thought and showing them that they have the ability to shift their attention and focus to another thought can help them gain more control over how they feel. This “Mindsight” practice helps children learn how to calm themselves and to focus their attention to where they would like it to be.
(Siegel and Payne Bryson, 2012)
11) “Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy Each Other”: Many parents/caregivers often find that they spend so much of their time either disciplining their children and/or getting from one activity to the next. “Playful Parenting” (e.g. being silly, telling jokes or playing games) is one way that you can build healthy relationships with your children. It allows children to have positive experiences with their parents/caregivers and it also helps model future relationships and connection.
12) “Connect Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a ‘We’ in Mind”: Conflict is often thought of as something to be avoided at all costs; however, that is neither practical nor is it possible. Teaching our children how to use the power of Mindsight to manage conflict in healthy and productive ways can be an excellent learning opportunity to build skills such as taking another person’s perspective, reading non-verbal cues and making amends.
Siegel, D., & Payne Bryson, T. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Bantam Books.
Written by Amanda Tessier, M.Sc., RMFT, RP, Therapist
Amanda Tessier is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist and Registered Psychotherapist at the Kanata Psychology and Counselling Centre who works with couples, families and individuals of all ages. To book an appointment with Amanda, please call (613) 435-2729 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment. Alternatively, you can click the “Book an Appointment” button above and select Amanda as the person with whom you would like to meet.