Latest update: May 26th, 2013
“But, I can’t reach the light!” Yoni yelled after his father asked him to turn on the hallway light.
“Yoni, you can reach the switch. You have done it hundreds of times before. You just need to go brush your teeth and in order to get to the bathroom, you need to go through the hallway,” his father, Noam, sighed.
He could tell by Yoni’s body language that this fit was going to be a long one. Yoni was already sprawled on the floor, his hands tightly balled into fists.
“I can’t. I don’t remember how,” Yoni whined.
Noam knew this was not true. Just a few minutes before, he had turned off the light. Today, Yoni just felt like refusing to cooperate.
“Well, Yoni, if you can’t reach the light, then you won’t be able to brush your teeth and we won’t have time for a bedtime story before bed.”
“No! You can tell me the story now! And, you can turn on the light. I just can’t reach it. Tatty, I can’t reach it. I can’t!”
Just then, Yoni’s little brother Binny waddled into the room. “Tatty, I can’t sleep with all the yelling,” Binny sniffled, holding onto his blanket.
“Okay, Binny. Go back to bed. It’s going to be quiet soon,” Noam said. But, he wasn’t so sure. Once Yoni got started, Noam always seemed to say the wrong thing and set him off for longer.
I have often discussed dealing the “explosive child” or a child who struggles with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). To help the explosive child, I often mention Dr. Ross Greene’s groundbreaking work on using “Plan B.” Recently, another approach has been gaining popularity. This approach promoted by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is about “the whole-brain child.”
The strategies Seigel suggests are not just for explosive children, but everyday parenting struggles. Seigel explains that parents are often experts about their children’s bodies. They know how much temperature is considered a fever, the correct dosage of Tylenol, how to clean a cut and bandage it, and which foods they are allergic to. Interestingly, he points out that even educated and concerned parents know very little about how the mechanics of the brain work. Yet, the biology of the brain is responsible for so much of what parents care about: discipline, decision-making, self-awareness, school, relationships and self-esteem.
The more we know about how our children’s brains work, the better we will be able nurture stronger, more resilient children. Not only that, but it can make parenting easier and more meaningful. The goal of this article is to give you a taste of how Seigel’s “whole brain perspective” can be applied to everyday parenting moments. This is not a manual that will eliminate all the stress involved in parenting, however, it should help explain some often-inexplicable occurrences.
The main concept behind the whole-brain child is integration. When the different parts of the brain collaborate, they create more robust connections. The better and more powerfully connected, or integrated, the different parts of the brain are, the more harmoniously they can work together.
So, how can you recognize when your child’s brain (or your brain) is in a state of integration? Seigel explains that integration is like floating in the middle of a river – and avoiding the river’s two banks. One side, he explains, is the bank of chaos, where you feel out of control. “Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of the tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day.” On the other bank of the river lies rigidity. As opposed to being out of control, you are “imposing control on everything and everyone around you.” You are unwilling to compromise or adapt.
We all move back and forth between chaos and rigidity throughout the day. When we are farthest from the middle of the river, we are also farthest from mental and emotional health. The better we are at avoiding the extremes, the more time we spend in “the river of well-being.”
Our children float along their own “rivers” and when we are in situations in which they lose their tempers or throw tantrums, framing their behavior through this lens can help us understand how well-integrated the different parts of their brains are at that moment. With this knowledge, you can help guide your child back to the middle ground.
Engage, don’t enrage
Seigel explains that people have “upstairs” and “downstairs” brains. The upstairs brain is involved in higher-level thinking and capable of negotiating and compromise. The downstairs brain is reactive and impulsive.
If your child, like Yoni, is throwing a fit, chances are that his downstairs brain is in charge. In order to integrate both parts of his brain, it is important to engage his upstairs brain as well. In our story, rather than responding to Yoni with an ultimatum, “Yoni, if you don’t turn on the light, you will not get stories,” the father might try questioning Yoni about his refusal, “Yoni, why are you saying you can’t reach the light. What’s stopping you?”
Engaging Yoni’s rational brain, rather than further enraging his impulsive brain will ultimately help Yoni learn how to problem solve and extricate himself from the tantrum.
Move it, or lose it
Studies have found that bodily movement directly affects brain chemistry. Therefore, if your child loses touch with his upstairs brain, a great way for him to regain balance (or integrate) is to have him move his body. Though perhaps inappropriate right before bed, if Yoni had done ten jumping jacks or ran around the house a few times, his body would have released some of his angry energy and tension, allowing him to calm down.
After vigorous physical activity, a child’s body sends more relaxed information to his upstairs brain, letting his emotional balance return and the different parts of his body function again in an integrated manner. We all know this to be true – sometimes our kids just need to kick their legs all over the place and jump up and down during a tantrum. However, if we direct their movement in a productive and non-destructive way, we help our children return to “the middle of the river.”
Benefits of “The Whole Brain Child” Approach
As Seigel writes, “The great news The Whole Brain Child offers is that even the hard times you go through with your kids, even the mistakes you make as a parent, are opportunities to help your children grow, learn, and develop into people who are happy, healthy, and fully themselves. Rather than ignoring their big emotions or distracting them from their struggles, you can nurture their whole brain, walking with them through those challenges, staying present and thus strengthening the parent-child bond and helping your kids feel seen, heard, and cared for.”
As a parent, what more could you ask for?
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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