Your toddler throws a tantrum in the middle of a store. Your preschooler refuses to get dressed. Your fifth-grader sulks on the bench instead of playing on the field. Do children conspire to make their parents’ lives endlessly challenging? No – it’s just their developing brain calling the shots! – The Whole Brain Child, Daniel J. Seigel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD
I have often talked about parenting the “explosive child” or a child who struggles with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). In that context, I often mention Dr. Ross Greene’s groundbreaking work on using “Plan B.” Both in my office and in my columns, I have great responses to my work with explosive children using Dr. Greene’s techniques. However, recently, another approach has been gaining popularity, both in my office and in parenting circles. This approach is from Daniel J. Siegel, MD and is often used to promote “the whole-brain child.”
The strategies Seigel suggests are not just for explosive children, but everyday parenting struggles. He explains that parents are often experts on 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 the children 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 and tackle some often-inexplicable occurrences.
The main concept behind the whole-brain child is integration – creating connections between different parts of the brain. 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 those parts 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 opposite bank 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 up 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.
Right and Left Brain
Your right and left brain are not only anatomically separate, they function differently as well. Your left brain craves order; it is logical, literal, and linear. On the other hand, your right brain is creative and nonverbal, focusing on the big picture rather than the minutiae of a situation.
How can you make sure your child’s left brain and right brain work together? Seigel suggests two strategies:
Connect and Redirect: If your eight-year-old is throwing a fit because he can’t believe his birthday isn’t for another 8 months, chances are that he is experiencing a lot of right brain (emotional or illogical activity). Rather than responding to your child with logical questions, which he will not be able to hear because he is in the midst of a wave of emotional thinking, react to him with emotions. Hold him tight and tell him that you understand how frustrating that might be. Once he is able to calm down, you help him work through the problem logically. In this way, you are connecting to him through his left brain (emotions) and redirecting his emotions through his right brain (logic). This will help him become better integrated in the future as well.
Name It to Tame It: If your fourth grader is dealing with bullying at school, she is most likely experiencing painful or scary moments. These moments can be overwhelming and can flood her with overpowering emotions. One way to help bring the left brain of logic into this right brain dominated picture, is to help your daughter retell the story of her pain. After retelling (or naming) the story several times, the pain she experienced is less overwhelming (is tamed).
Upstairs and Downstairs Brain
The brain is not just divided into two hemispheres; it also has an “upstairs” and a “downstairs.” Scientists identify the downstairs brain, made up of the brain stem and limbic system, as the part responsible for basic functions, such as breathing, blinking, instinctually reacting, and emoting strongly. The upstairs brain, with its cerebral cortex, is the place in which higher function mental processes take place, such as imagining, planning, empathy, and morality.
We are at our best when our instincts are in line with our higher-level thinking. Here is one suggestion of how to help our children integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains:
Our brains are like muscles, so if we do not exercise them, they will not work to their fullest potential. While often as parents we have an urge to make decisions for our children so that we can guide them in the right direction, it is also important to allow your child to make his own decisions. For instance, if your child has a baseball game and a friend’s birthday party on the same day, it would help to involve him in the decision-making process. Not only will he be less likely to be upset about missing the event if he was part of the process, but you will also be teaching him about executive function and weighing different options to come to a conclusion.
The above examples are just a taste of what parenting the whole-brain child is about; however, I have found great success when working with parents and teachers using this method. Like most things dealing with the health and happiness of our children, it’s worth a try!
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 email@example.com.
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